Just before the artist Matt Freedman left New York for Boston in the fall of 2012 to undergo treatment for adenoid cystic carcinoma— a rare form of cancer that by the time it was diagnosed had spread from his tongue to his neck and lungs—his students and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania presented him with a blank sketchbook. He resolved to record his thoughts and experiences, four pages a day, for the next seven weeks. For Freedman, who created the comic strip Free Associates for the Reader from 1978 to 1991, writing and drawing seemed the best and most familiar way to express himself and organize his thoughts and maintain a veneer of normalcy.
“It looked like a good trade,” he writes in the introduction of his new book, Relatively Indolent but Relentless, “a notebook filled with words and pictures in exchange for simply living through an unavoidable ordeal.”
Relatively Indolent but Relentless is that notebook, virtually unchanged except for a few adjustments to make Freedman’s handwriting more legible, and you may be forgiven for thinking that most of the benefits of that trade-off go to Freedman’s readers. (The title comes from Freedman’s doctor’s description of the cancer’s growth.) Unlike most cancer memoirs, it was created in the moment, which gives it an immediacy and honesty as well as a refreshing lack of preachiness and heroics. It’s neither depressing nor (that horrible word!) inspirational. Part of this is due to what Freedman describes as a natural passivity and fatalism, the result, he says, of growing up as a baseball fan in Chicago. Part of it is Freedman’s own intelligence and curiosity. He makes a conscious effort to avoid falling into a pit of sick-person self-absorption and self-pity. He tries to observe himself and his treatment objectively, and even at his lowest points he continues to follow the news (particularly Hurricane Sandy and the presidential election) and to take pleasure in curiosities from the outside world (like the video sent by a friend of the mating dance of the peacock spider) and in filling the pages of his book with better drawings.
“The things I read about cancer were all in the past tense,” Freedman says now, via phone from his home in Ridgewood, Queens. “It’s already evaluated. The writer is creating a narrative gloss or advocating how to behave. That’s another layer of removal from the experience. I wanted to keep track of a state of confusion and speculation.”
The drawings themselves reflect Freedman’s state of mind: at first, they’re sketchy and raw; as the book progresses—and as he began to depend on the book as a distraction from the pain and from bigger problems—they become more intricate and elaborate.
Freedman describes his treatment, which involved two months of chemotherapy and radiation, in excruciating detail. The radiation burns away at the tumor on the back of his tongue, but it also burns the healthy tissue around it. His neck turns red, massive amounts of phlegm coagulate in the back of his throat, it becomes painful to talk, and the pain medicine makes his brain foggy. Worst of all, eating becomes nearly intolerable. “Even my old friend water has begun to hurt,” he writes, “when I take a drink of water its as though a thousand pins stick into my tongue and the inside and roof of my mouth.”
If Freedman’s weight drops below 170 pounds, his doctors tell him, he’ll be put on a feeding tube. Food, he decides, is the one thing he can control; throughout the book, he counts calories obsessively in order to keep his weight up and to give his pain-medicine-addled brain something to focus on.
Freedman’s other major preoccupation is how he will adjust to reentry into the land of the “healthies.” “The two months covered in the book were in some ways the most pleasurable in an awful way,” he says. A rotating assortment of relatives—his wife, Jude, and their dog, his mother, his brothers—stayed with him throughout the treatment. “The only thing I had to worry about was getting myself through. That was temporary. Going back to the regular world was hard. I was more on my own than I had been before.”
He had been prepared by friends who’d also undergone cancer treatment not to expect any profound epiphanies. And mostly he didn’t have any. Instead, he experienced small shifts in the way he viewed the world, or, as he puts it, an evolving state of mind. “You do return to normalcy at the end of it,” he says, “but you think about things you never thought before. It alters your consciousness. Odd, small little things. Food tastes different. I feel different things inside my body. It’s the ‘new normal.’ You get used to it.”
While he was working on the sketchbook, Freedman never expected to show it to anyone. But the words and pictures turned out to be more lucid than he’d thought, even when he was creating them. He passed it on to a few friends, and then his art dealer, who turned it into a show at Studio 10, a gallery in Brooklyn, in the spring of 2013, where it caught the attention of an editor at Seven Stories Press.
Relatively indolent but relentless, Freedman’s cancer continues to progress. He underwent another round of treatment for the tumors in his lungs, but the results, he says, were inconclusive. He hasn’t been on any medication since last spring.
A few months after he got back to New York, he started another journal. “Instead of the natural narrative arc of the treatment, it’s amorphous,” he says. “You’re getting better, you’re not getting better. There’s things you do, like taking care of a puppy, or teaching classes, but there’s a ghostly presence hovering over you.”