One of the many things that makes a city so vibrant is the people who choose to make it their home. They add an energy and sense of community which in turn creates the soul of a metropolis. Like real life super heroes, they work hard to make the world a better place.
Listed as one of The Globe and Mail’s sixteen Torontonians to watch in 2016, Teva Harrison is certainly super. She is an artist, writer and cartoonist who provides a painfully honest, yet highly inspirational snapshot into the realities of her diagnosis with stage 4 breast cancer at 37 years old in her graphic memoir, In-Between Days.
Before her diagnosis, Teva was making a difference nationally working as the Director of Marketing at the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Today, both through her work in In-Between Days and as a public speaker within the metastatic cancer and artistic community, she continues to help others see the simple beauty in life. Teva shares an important reminder for everyone about the power of storytelling, grace, love and adventure.
What do you aspire to have people coping with chronic illness take away from In-Between Days? What about the family members and/or friends who are hoping to support someone living with disease?
I hope that a person living with chronic or terminal illness will feel a bit less alone when they’re reading my book. Not everybody is lucky enough to have a strong support network. It can be hard to join a group or reach out to other people when you’re doing the hard work of just trying to live with the realities and limitations of illness. I struggle with how to live – how to keep on living – joyfully with this disease. Cancer has taken away a number of possibilities from me, and any chronic illness imposes limitations, but this is still our time to live, so I hope to encourage people to live as well as possible while we’re still here.
I also hope that the book will give friends and family a window into some of the things their loved one might be feeling or going through. Cancer, like any illness, is experienced differently by everybody, and this is my story alone, but I believe that at the emotional core we all struggle with similar fears, hopes, anxieties, frustrations and dreams. I hope the book inspires some compassion.
Your writing provides an honest and deeply moving account of your experiences with cancer. What are some of the most personally meaningful and memorable responses you’ve received from readers of In-Between Days?
After I was on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers, I talked about the impact of my cancer treatment on my sex life, the dysfunction I’ve experienced, and the lengths I went to find a solution. A woman reached out to me on Facebook, telling me that she had cried three times since hearing me on the radio. One of the hardest parts of her cancer treatment has been sexual dysfunction and she didn’t know that there was anything she could do to mitigate the effects. She told me that she was going to talk to her oncologist right away and see what options there are for her.
I was nervous about talking about my sex life in such a public way. I decided to include it, though, for exactly those reasons. When we talk about sex in our society, it’s usually about who has lots of it, from bragging to slut-shaming. Nobody brags about dysfunction. Likewise, nobody should feel ashamed, yet this is one of the many ways our bodies can betray us in treatment. It’s incredibly common, but our doctors are so focused on keeping us alive that it might feel trivial to bring up the fact that life-extending treatment can get in the way of intimacy. It’s not trivial, though. It’s an important aspect of quality of life for many of us.
Your battle with cancer has forced you to rethink and re-evaluate your perspective on important matters including body image, personal relationships, life priorities, and animal testing to name a few. Which perspective shift has impacted you the most? Why?
Life priorities, one hundred per cent. If I only have a few more years, and if those years are going to be operating at a reduced capacity, that changes what I’m going to do with that time dramatically.
I only have a few really good hours a day and I want to spend them making art or raising awareness about metastatic breast cancer or being with the people I care the most about. The things that lingered on my to-do list for years, like travel and self-care, are at the top now. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever be more well than I am today, so if I’m going to do things that are physically taxing, I have to do them soon because I might not be able later.
What was the most challenging part of creating your memoir, In-Between Days?
I had a lot of frustration around my body’s limitations when I was working on the book. I had so much that I wanted to say, but I was experiencing really bad joint pain as a side effect from my treatment. It meant that my hands couldn’t keep up with my thoughts.
My schedule is necessarily erratic, peppered as it is with hospital days, both planned and unexpected, but I worked on the book every day I was able. When I started writing the book, I was just a few months into a clinical trial, so I had more frequent hospital visits for tests and monitoring. A few times during the process I had health challenges that ground progress to a complete halt for days or weeks. Some days I couldn’t work because of fatigue or side effects, including joint pain that made both writing and drawing challenging, but most days I worked on the book in one way or another, from thinking about what to include to writing and drawing. How I worked was often dictated by my body and its abilities.
As someone who has lived in both Canada and the US do you have any thoughts on both health care systems, patient care, and what improvements you’d like to see?
I never had any significant health challenges when I lived in the States, so I have very limited experience with the American health care system. I moved to Canada before President Obama’s health plan was put into place. I worked on contracts in arts management and I didn’t have benefits, so I got a lot of my primary care – including paps and cancer screenings – from Planned Parenthood. It terrifies me when I think of the threats to their funding because I don’t know where precariously-employed women will turn for basic sexual and reproductive health if they’re defunded.
The first time I used my Canadian health card, I stood at the counter and tried to pay, while the good-natured woman at reception laughed at me kindly. I feel incredibly grateful for how hassle-free my cancer treatment has been here in Canada. I also feel very lucky to live in Toronto where I am treated at Princess Margaret, which is a globally top cancer hospital. I worry about a lot of things, but the quality of my care is not one of them. I know that my oncologist, who is also a researcher, is on top of the latest developments in medical oncology and as my disease progresses he will be offering me the best available treatments.
All that said, there is always room for improvement. There isn’t uniformity across provinces in terms of the delivery of cancer treatments. The western provinces and Quebec fund all approved cancer treatments regardless of the patient’s socioeconomic status, where others (including Ontario, where I live, and the Atlantic provinces) only cover in-hospital treatments, leaving patients or private insurance to cover take-home treatments like pills or injections. I would never have guessed that Canada had this uneven coverage until I got sick and these things started to matter to me. My treatments are currently all pills or injections, not IV, so I fall in this demographic gap. I’m lucky that I have excellent benefits from the job I was working when I got sick, but many cancer patients don’t. I’d really like to live to see this inequality tightened up across Canada.
Why did you choose to make Toronto your home? What is your favourite thing about the city?
When I met my husband, he lived here and I lived in Seattle. Both are excellent cities. We were both young, but his career was in a very specific field and Seattle didn’t have the kind of options Toronto offered. I used to work in film and I visited Toronto for TIFF nearly every year. I already loved this city when I fell in love with my husband, so it was an easy choice for me.
I love the way Toronto celebrates its diverse cultures. Move through the city in the summer and you’ll smell (then taste) amazing food, hear music from across town and around the world, and learn more about your neighbours’ homelands. I grew up in a very small town in rural Oregon, so it feels like magic to be surrounded by people from all over the world. It’s such a gift and it makes the world feel smaller in a beautiful way.
Can you share some of the best advice you have received in your career or in life?
It doesn’t always have to be perfect. Don’t get so hung up on the details that you lose sight of the big picture.
Slow down. Breathe. Go outside. Maybe take a walk and give yourself room to think.
Collaborate with smart people. It’s not on you to do everything.
Making mistakes is how we learn in a lasting way. Be kind to yourself, while also holding yourself accountable.
Some People Get Lucky by Teva Harrison
What are the biggest career and life barriers for women today?
That’s a very big question, and the answer varies depending on so many external factors, including where a woman is born.
For one woman it might be a lack of access to family planning tools like contraception while another woman might struggle to overcome unspoken sexism in promotion or hiring practices, or in the judicial system. A young woman trying to go back to work after cancer treatment might struggle with PTSD while a young woman in another part of the world might have been lucky if she got to go to school at all. The female wage gap in Canada remains significant, with a woman employed full-time earning on average 72 per cent of a man’s salary. The wage gap is even bigger when you also factor in part-time workers. This means that right here in Canada, women live precariously close to poverty, especially if they decide to have kids alone or get a divorce.
We have so much work to do to address global inequality for girls and women that it can feel daunting, cripplingly so…but if we start by helping and supporting each other, looking for ways to improve the situation where we work and live, we can all be a part of incremental improvements.
You are an inspiring artist and writer, which projects are you most proud of and why?
You’re so kind to say so. I’m really proud of this book. I was able to tell my story in a way that’s completely true to me, and I’m grateful to my publisher for embracing its unusual format so generously. I’m also really proud of a piece I wrote for The Walrus magazine called ‘The Disappearing Act’, a complementary talk and visual essay on the ways we disappear when we’re sick – from work, from social prominence – and what that means to society, what is lost.
How do you define success? Has your definition of success changed during your journey with cancer?
To me, success is being where you want to be in life. It’s completely subjective to each individual. I do think it has changed for me. I used to strive, so much, in my career. Now I’m doing as much as I can, and even though it’s less, it feels like enough. If you’re happy where you are, that’s success to me.
What’s next? Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to talk about?
Yeah! I’m really excited about The Joyful Living Colouring Book, coming out in November. These are all new drawings of things that make me really happy.
When I first got sick, before I learned how to talk about cancer, I took a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy class at Princess Margaret. The meditation practice and mindfulness skills I learned in that class have been invaluable in dealing with the anxiety, stress and the uncertainty of my diagnosis. I love the emergence of colouring as a mindfulness tool. It makes a really valuable stress-reduction tool incredibly accessible. Since drawing has been so useful to me, I’m really happy to be returning the favour with this project.