A woman who underwent treatment for bowel cancer whilst pregnant has turned her experience into an opportunity to educate and enlighten others – with a graphic novel.
Matilda Tristram, 32, who was a resident of Hackney Road, Haggerston at the time of her diagnosis, was faced with the heart-rending choice of having an abortion, delaying treatment, or risking the chemotherapy that could harm her baby in unknown ways.
Choosing to undergo chemotherapy, she memorialised her experience in the form of a diary comic, Probably Nothing. At live readings and panels across London, she informs people about the realities of cancer and helps them to avoid the pitfalls.
“I want the book to encourage people to talk to cancer patients normally, and not feel they have to read a How-To book or something,” she said at a live reading in Broadway Bookshop, London Fields.
But the biggest mistake she wants to prevent is the one that doctors at Homerton Hospital made when they sent her home twice, dismissing her excruciating stomach pain as trapped wind or indigestion. Only Ms Tristram’s insistence on staying and being scanned for a blockage saved her life. As it was, the cancer was Stage III when it was diagnosed and had spread to her lymph nodes, which meant that it could return.
“I really regret not putting more in the comic about the misdiagnoses and all the alternative therapies I tried, which were really quite dangerous,” she reflected.
Ms Tristram, who was a drawing and animation teacher for eight years and wrote for children’s television, found that drawing the comic helped her in unexpected ways.
“I enjoy drawing things as simply as possible, especially because what was happening to my body was very complicated and grotesque. I enjoyed reducing things to a few simple lines.”
Whilst it wasn’t cathartic to draw the comic – “I mostly got my emotions out by crying all the time” – it helped her to preserve all of her experiences, both positive and negative.
“If I hadn’t written about the good memories, I might only remember the horrible ones,” she said.
She also found an unexpected source of support in Twitter, after setting up a new account, @Colonoclast, dedicated to tweeting about cancer and her comic. She was sent gifts by people online whom she’d never met, and always received a “great response” if she was scared or needed reassurance.
“The cancer community online is very supportive, as is the comics community,” said Ms Tristram. “There wouldn’t be a book if it wasn’t for Twitter.”
This coming Wednesday, Matilda Tristram will be doing another live reading at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green. She is also looking forward to working with doctors from Homerton Hospital at staff training days, talking about how to better communicate with patients and improving the diagnostic process.
In spite of the anger and pain she experienced, Ms Tristram is able to be positive about the future.
“I’m fine, and James is fine, and I’m not so scared any more,” she said.