Book review: Mom’s Cancer by Brian Fies

(The post formerly known as )

This article was originally published on the Toon Zone News & Reviews page, 2008


Mom’s Cancer is the account of one woman’s battle with Stage IV lung cancer, as witnessed by her adult children. Often called one of the best graphic novels you’ve never heard of, Mom’s Cancer has won numerous awards for its blend of universal experience and personal trial.

The narrative opens with Mom experiencing a TIA (transient ischemic attack) that is traced to a brain tumor. Believe it or not, that’s the good news. The brain tumor has even odds of being curable. Unfortunately Mom has cancer in so many corners that the doctor can biopsy a surface bump, “tapping” Mom like a maple tree in sugar season. “How bad are things,” the Narrator begins, “when a tumor in your brain is the least of your worries?”

Mom’s children—The Narrator (a writer in his forties), Nurse Sis (in her thirties), and Kid Sis (about twenty-five)—question doctors, shuttle Mom to her treatments, watch her hair fall out, and help her assemble the ubiquitous jigsaw puzzle in the waiting room. The narrative does not shy away from negative emotions and difficult situations, starting with, who should be told? Specifically, should they tell Divorced Dad, who left to Find Himself and now lives several states away? The Narrator decides that Dad needs to know, though one could argue that it is The Narrator (who really needs a parent right now) who needs to tell him.

Next come guilt and blame. Mom is told in uncompromising terms that her cancer came from her smoking. Unable to direct his rage against his suffering mother, The Narrator rails against every other smoker: “They deserve what they get. All of them.” It’s hard to admit that such feelings do influence a family’s attitudes toward its sick. Still, as Fies illustrates, actually being right in an “I told you so” argument is a lousy victory.

Good days exist but often conditionally. The Narrator grumbles about his sisters giving Mom a puppy (“I’m not taking it!”), and Nurse Sis and Kid Sis soon show the strain of doing the bulk of the caregiving. Character portrayals can be less than flattering, and the author admits that other people recall some events differently than he does. “Everyone is doing everything they can. But some of it conflicts, and none of it is enough.”

Doctors come in for their share of scrutiny. Mom’s family doctor never ordered a chest X-ray for a smoker who always coughed, but Mom’s dream team of specialists make her feel stupid. “Call if you notice anything unusual,” they say—but when Mom calls, they dismiss her symptoms as, “You have lung cancer; what did you expect?” Also, the doctors don’t do much to help Mom through depression. Their supervision and the flurry of activity ceases when the brain tumor has been treated, leaving Mom alone for long, silent days without distractions, watching the poisons drip into her veins.

The comic, originally published semi-anonymously on the web, was sold to print to give it permanence and a wider audience, and is a good title to introduce a non-GN reader to the graphic novel format. Panels are drawn in spare but eloquent black-and-white. Color is reserved for an occasional Dorothy-in-Oz fantasy (Mom as the “Operation” game; her children as superheroes), or for the few perfect days that felt unreal (Mom as the only figure in color at what might be her last birthday party). A flashback in sepia connects the peaceful death of Mom’s beloved grandfather to Mom’s present struggle.

Fies has cited Ollie Johnson, Bill Watterson, and Gus Arriola as inspirations, and their influence is evident in Fies’ strong line, shading, and effective use of negative space. Perspective amplifies Mom’s highs and lows. Mom’s relentlessly cheerful oncologist unnerves The Narrator from low-angle camera, her Suze Orman-like smile expanding in successive panels like an iceberg bearing down on a dinghy. Mom’s worst days are illustrated in high-angle as befits the days she feels herself sinking. Having come to expect high-angle on bad days, we, like Mom, are unprepared for her most fragile hour, when Mom breaks down in neutral view, looking the disease and the audience in the face at last.

While the book is more intended to be a how-it-happened than a how-to guide, two topics are missing. One, money is not a factor. In later correspondence between Fies and his fans, the author reveals that his mother had good insurance and some funds put away. Fies acknowledges that many cancer patients get only the care they can afford, and that Mom was fortunate to be spared that added misery.

Two, there is no mention of belief. Traditionally in times of crisis people turn to their faith traditions, question their faith traditions, or acquire faith traditions if they’re in a bargaining period and think it might help. Only the parents have any metaphysical musings, such as they are. Dad dares voice the opinion that Mom is not doing “a good job” of dying. Probably Mom would be eligible for hospice, but the Narrator hints that’s not what Dad meant. Mom is no Harrison Ford creation, defiantly crying, “Never tell me the odds,” but Mom trusts fate more than odds. This old-school medicine (patients don’t ask and doctors don’t tell) annoys her ex-husband and her son, but it’s her decision and it works for her. One of the hardest moments for The Narrator is to admit that Mom’s initial instincts were correct, that a patient’s “cancer team” needs to be on the same page, and Dad needs to be removed from that team.

“Tests and treatments vary; the emotional and practical impacts of a serious illness are nearly universal.” Fies expresses gratitude that some universities now use the book to help medical students understand a patient’s point of view. The narration includes the universal milestones but avoids the “the cancer in room 14” medical labels by remembering to make Mom “our” mom first. Mom is a young model, an experiment in a mad scientist’s lair, an aspiring actress, a tightrope walker, a dog lover, an aging-before-our-eyes grandmother, and a small, beloved granddaughter. Fies and his mother reiterate the simple truth: “Although I distrust stories with a lesson, here is one: No one will care more about your life than you do, and no one is better qualified to chart its course than you are. You are the expert.”

Against incredible odds, “Mom” survived cancer. She died two years later of complications caused by the drugs that cured her. She was sixty-six years old. Her name was Barbara.

Mom’s blog, her take on life after cancer, is now inactive but has been advertized by her family and remains on the net for the indefinite future. Brian Fies continues to maintain the central reference site and his current blog, as does Kid Sis at

(TOM’s note: The author, Brian Fies, is “available to answer questions about my book(s), including this one.)

Mom’s Cancer by Brian Fies, 115 pages, Image (an imprint of Harry N. Abrams, Inc.), c2006. Originally published 2004 as a net comic. Winner, Eisner Award, Best Digital Comic, 2005. Winner, Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis, Sachbuch (German Youth Literature Prize, Nonfiction), 2007. Winner, Harvey Awards, Best New Talent, 2007. Winner, Lulu Blooker Prize, 2007. Artwork on museum rotation: Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, New York, as of April 2008. Scheduled to be exhibited at the Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Mass., as of November 2008.


Author: The_Old_Maid_of_Potluck

Author of Potluck2point0: The resource formerly known as (a.k.a. My humongous [technical term] study of "What's behind 'Left Behind'").