When Miriam Engelberg was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had a fantasy few people would admit to, let alone tell the world. In her memoir "Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person," she shares it: Everyone around her had been so certain that her breast biopsy would come back negative that her first thought was "Ha! Now they'll take me seriously."

Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s response to her diagnosis was more visceral. In her graphic novel "Cancer Vixen," when she hears the bad news, she's sucked off the earth, designer heels and all, into a black hole. It's dark and cold there, and she wishes she could just go back to her home planet, where she normally obsesses about her self-esteem, her weight and her hair.

Neither book flinches at showing what a slice of hell it is to be diagnosed and treated for cancer, but both are so honest and darkly funny that you can't help but be drawn into them. Engelberg, for example, writes of trying to restrain her tell-all tendencies, imagining people admiring her from afar: "Oh wow! There's that woman who never talks. She's so mysterious and alluring!" In the next frame, which shows her bumping into an acquaintance in the street, she confesses she was not successful: "Hi, how are you?" "I have breast cancer! (Sob!)"

Cover of The Inflatable WomanThe Inflatable Woman (Photo: Rachael Ball)

Other cartoonist takes on cancer include "Mom's Cancer" by Brian Fies and "Our Cancer Year" by the late "American Splendor" author Harvey Pekar. The breast cancer genre includes "Mammoir," a self-published memoir by Boston fourth grade teacher Tucky Fussell, and "The Inflatable Woman," coming in December 2015 from British teacher and cartoonist Rachael Ball. Inspired by Ball’s experience with breast cancer, it’s a magical realism tale about Iris (or balletgirl_42, as she's known on the Internet dating circuit), a zookeeper looking for love when she's diagnosed with breast cancer. With a promise of singing penguins, it's something to look forward to.

I went through treatment for breast cancer myself, and I found that the books by Engelberg and Marchetto helped reveal what to expect. Each mirrored many of my coping mechanisms (total panic, denial, twisted humor, surreal dissociation, more panic). Each book also had me laughing out loud and nodding in agreement. If every woman's breast cancer experience is singular, clearly there are parts of the experience we all share.

Comics as exorcism

Engleberg’s “Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person” was in a stack of books and magazines at the hospital infusion center where I received chemo. I'd seen patients pick it up, flip through it, and smile. I soon found myself doing the same thing.

Engelberg lived in San Francisco, where she juggled roles as a non-profit tech trainer, cartoonist, performer and mother of a young son. She first began drawing cartoons to spoof the non-profit world. When she got breast cancer, she used her simple line drawings and often hilarious captions as a way to exorcise the anxiety and despair that plagued her during treatment.

"When the radiologist called with the bad news, I realized how foolish I'd been not to take the day off," she writes in a panel that shows her on the phone at work while tears roll down her face. "Now I needed to figure out the etiquette of cancer announcements in the workplace." She pens cards in fancy script, "Miriam Engelberg cordially invites you to join her in reacting to her new CANCER diagnosis. Please -- No Gifts."

She dwells on the fact that she couldn't seem to reach the higher plane where she thought a person with a life-threatening illness belonged. All she wanted to do watch “Celebrity Poker” and do crossword puzzles. In one panel, she draws herself in bed next to her sleeping husband, eyes wide open. "Sometimes I wondered whether doing crosswords was the best way for me to spend time now that I had cancer," she writes. "What if I die soon? Perhaps I should stop escaping and face my life and death head on?" "Nah!" she says. "I'll face death some other time when I'm not going through this scary cancer thing."

Three years after Engelberg's initial diagnosis and treatment, doctors discovered that her cancer had metastasized to her bones and brain. She died at the age of 48.

Cancer vixen

Marchetto, a Manhattanite and self-described fashionista who regularly sells her cartoons to Glamour and the New Yorker, got her diagnosis just before she was about to marry a restaurateur who mingles with gorgeous celebrities every night. Battling cancer at 43, she's worried about how she'll compete. After all, women are sidling up to her beau with their phone numbers and telling him she’s “damaged goods.” (Spoiler: In the end, though, love does conquer all.)

"Cancer Vixen" shows Marchetto battling for her life, with an occasional metamorphosis into superhero "Cancer Vixen." The memoir, which Time magazine chose as one of its top 10 graphic novels, provides an inside look at what cancer treatment is like. She was so meticulous that she carried a tape recorder to all her medical appointments and measured each needle. After her book publication and recovery, Marchetto started a foundation that has raised more than 1 million dollars for uninsured and underinsured women. Its motto: "No Breast Left Behind."

Marchetto is wonderfully imaginative and a fine cartoonist. I love how she draws her cancer cells — as bilious green, scowling blobs with their tongues sticking out. "Cancer Vixen" is visually striking, filled with rich, poppy colors on lustrous paper stock. It's a joy to look at and a feisty work as well. The heart and soul of the book is her determination to kick cancer in the gut. That's what everyone with this disease is hoping for.

Elaine Herscher, M.S., is an award-winning writer, videographer and co-author of the book Generation Extra-Large (Perseus, 2004). She worked as a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle for many years and served as night editor at the Oakland bureau. She also served as senior managing editor at Consumer Health Interactive.

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