Sima Elizabeth Shefrin’s new book, Embroidered Cancer Comic, will be launched on Sept. 15 at the Roundhouse.
Cancer is a word often whispered. Sex is certainly not spoken of in polite company. Yet Sima Elizabeth Shefrin tackles both topics in her new book, Embroidered Cancer Comic (Singing Dragon, 2016), which receives its Vancouver launch on Sept. 15 at Roundhouse Community Centre.
The comic begins with Shefrin’s husband, Bob Bossin, coming home from the doctor with a diagnosis of high cholesterol. “Oh, he also said my PSA was up,” Bossin tells Shefrin. After some understandable delays, Bossin gets the needed biopsy. While the couple are enjoying a funny movie together, the call from the doctor comes: prostate cancer.
In a mere 30 pages, with text and illustrations by Shefrin, Embroidered Cancer Comic shows Bossin’s uncertainty over treatment options, his efforts to learn more about the cancer, the emotional stress on him and Shefrin, as well as the effects of the cancer and its treatments on the couple’s sex life.
“The strain of the prostate cancer journey on relationships cannot be overstated, yet patients and their partners are left to figure this out for themselves,” writes Dr. Peter Black of Vancouver Prostate Centre – Bossin’s surgeon – in a brief commentary at the end of the comic, where both Shefrin and Bossin also share more of their story.
Helping others was one of Shefrin’s goals.
“I’m hoping the book will help couples in this situation be able to communicate,” she told the Independent.
Already, it’s had an impact.
“I thought it had potential for being a major project, especially after I got the publishing contract,” said Shefrin. “But then, of course, you don’t leave that in the hands of the gods. Singing Dragon has been very good for getting publicity in Britain, in both the comic and the medical worlds. In Canada, I’ve done most of it myself.
“I believe that this book can do real good in the world,” she said, sharing that a man in Quebec had written her “about what a difference it had made to both him and his wife.”
She said, “That’s what I’m hoping to do. I believe in the comic, so I’m willing to do whatever pushing I need to, to get it out into the world.”
Shefrin is a noted fabric artist, her website name – stitchingforsocialchange.ca – perfectly describing the nature of her work.
“I have often used my art to work through life events and to create awareness and conversation about taboo or contentious subjects,” she writes at the end of the comic book. “But nothing has made me feel as vulnerable as the creation of this comic. At the same time, it has helped me realize that, when you’re there, cancer becomes a part of daily life, like buying groceries or washing dishes.”
It took Shefrin three years to sew the embroidered line drawings, which were then photographed for the book. When asked if she ever thought of creating the images in a more expedient way, Shefrin said, “Fabric is my medium. The books I illustrated are mostly paper collage, but even when I work in paper, I think like a fabric artist. I did drawings first and then embroidered them, and I always liked the embroidered result better than the original drawing.”
The book “started out as a piece of art,” she said. “I thought I might self-publish or maybe simply photocopy a kind of catalogue for a show. But, one day, I came across the Graphic Medicine site and realized that there was a whole world out there of people making comics about medical issues. I’d had no idea.
“So, I started looking at the site regularly as well as at their Facebook page. Occasionally, there would be postings for people looking for comic strips on this and that and, if it was vaguely relevant, I’d send out my work. I do this a lot and often it comes to nothing. But, a couple of months later, I got an email from Jessica Kingsley saying they might be interested in publishing my work. It took me about an hour to figure out who they were and how they found me. They published it through their imprint, Singing Dragon. After that, the focus shifted and became about creating the comic, a story with a beginning, middle and end, instead of an art series. Now that it’s in print, I’m back to creating the quilts for the art series.”
The book has received many very positive reviews, including one in the U.K. medical journal The Lancet – and, according to the book’s Facebook page, it earned “a lovely personal note from Judi Dench,” who is mentioned in the comic. Specifically, when Shefrin asks her husband, “Who really excites you?” his answer is Dench.
The most touching review of the book comes from Bossin. “And because you live with cancer, whoever you live with lives with it, too, as Elizabeth’s comic shows so tenderly,” he writes. “For me, there is no one I would rather live with cancer with. No one.”
Those curious about what Dame Judi said and other stories behind the comic’s creation can ask Shefrin and Bossin at the Sept. 15 launch, which starts at 7 p.m. The quilted original illustrations are on display at the Roundhouse’s Window Gallery until Oct. 30.