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Illustrating the Patient Experience: A Graphic Artist's Cancer Narrative

April 22, 2019

The manner in which people with cancer deal with their experiences as patients is as varied as the number of patients there are. While one person may feel comforted by long, quiet walks in the woods, another may find strength by skydiving or rock climbing. After receiving his cancer diagnosis, Christian “Patch” Patchell found a much-needed outlet in his art.

The antics of Patchell’s cartoon monsters and heroes helped him capture his nine-month odyssey through cancer treatment for the stage IV squamous cell carcinoma with which he was diagnosed in 2007 at age 33. One month into his treatment, Patchell—a talented illustrator and cartoonist—began to record his medical experience in the medium he knew best. Patchell tells the story of his journey as patient and survivor in a recent issue of Oncology Issues, in which he recalls, “I begin treatments and make a pact with myself. For every day of treatment, I will draw for an hour. I won’t let cancer take that away.”

In his article, Patchell recounts the major events in his life during his treatment and the decade that followed. One year after enduring lymph node removal and concurrent chemoradiation, Patchell returned to his job as an art instructor. He decided to turn the sketchbook in which he recorded his cancer treatment into a published book in which his artwork would be accompanied by a narrative of his experience. The book’s creation became a two-year project that culminated in its successful release four years after Patchell’s diagnosis.

In his article in Oncology Issues, Patchell says that his book holds different meaning for different people, each of which is valid:

When I share it with artists and creatives, I talk about communicating a personal experience through art. When discussing my experience with people in the dental and medical profession, I share the healing power of art and creativity. And when sharing my experience with patients, caregivers, and survivors, it’s about holding on to and claiming something as your own—something that disease cannot take away.

In 2018, Patchell took his art to the medical school classroom, where he teaches Graphic Medicine, a course that explores observation through the arts. There, Patchell says, “We discuss personal stories and how to share them through drawing and writing.”

Patchell says that learning in his course has been a mutual experience: “I am caught off-guard by the fact that [my students] tell personal narratives, tales about what inspired them to enter their fields—the same as me. My misconceptions of why people study medicine are erased by my first class.”

By recording his story in his artwork, says Patchell, he was able to make sense of his unexpected journey. “You’re reading my story,” writes Patchell. “I never lost my voice. I think I finally found out how to navigate the new normal.”

This post is adapted from “Graphic Medicine: Navigating the Waters as a Cancer Survivor for the Last Decade,” by Christian “Patch” Patchell. It first appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Oncology Issues. Access the article here.

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