On Becoming a Cancer Vixen


Years ago, I read Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s graphic memoir Cancer Vixen and LOVED it. The cartoonist, who lives in Manhattan, tells the true story of finding a lump in her breast at age 43. “You don’t know if you’re going to live, if you’re going to lose your hair, if you’re even going to get treatment since you don’t have insurance,” she says. For our final breast essay, I talked to her about her experience…


“My diagnosis came at the worst time. I was 43. My career was going well — I was a cartoonist for The New Yorker and Glamour, where I had a column about dating, friends and life in the city. And I was engaged to be married. It was a really happy time. And then three weeks before the wedding, I went to my doctor because of a little bronchitis, and his stethoscope bumped into a lump. Two hours later, I found myself in a breast surgeon’s office getting a sonogram. He said, ‘We’ll aspirate the tumor to see if the cells are angry.’ I thought, Angry cancer cells, hmmm. I was considerably freaked. Freaked is an understatement.”


“I was walking down Hudson River Park with my best friend Bob. I was pretty depressed with dirty hair, looking upset. I told him I was going to write about my experience for my Glamour column, and he said, ‘What are you going to call it?’ And I said, ‘Breast Case Scenario.’ He was like, ‘Whaaaaat? That is terrible. You look like a victim! Where’s my vixen?’ And we both looked at each other, and he said, ‘Cancer Vixen.’ So, I drew myself as a cancer-kicking vixen. I drew a cartoon of the angry cancer cells giving me the finger; it felt great to say fuck you right back!”


“When I had cancer, I felt like, Why do things you don’t want to do? Life is so finite. Using the cancer card taught to me to say no, and I still keep that up nowadays.”


“My mom was especially helpful. She has a big Sagittarian mouth and she would speak up to doctors when I needed her to. I drew her with rose-colored glasses because she actually wears rose-colored glasses. She likes to see the world that way. It’s about positivity. It’s also part vanity because she doesn’t like putting on eye makeup.”



“Journaling was really empowering. I brought my sketchpad to my chemo treatments; I’d sketch with an IV in my hand. When I put my experience on the page, it felt as if it were outside of me. I was looking at it, I was telling cancer that I was going to kick its ass. I always recommend that people write stuff down when there’s a traumatic moment in their life. It makes you feel like you have a voice. I felt so much better and stronger. You can find the humor in things; somehow you can make yourself laugh.”


Thank you so much, Marisa. Cancer Vixen is in the process of becoming a movie (Julie Delpy wrote the screenplay), and Marisa’s latest graphic novel Ann Tenna came out in September.

Thinking of everyone brave out there today!

P.S. Five favorite books, and lopsided breasts.

(Illustrations excerpted from Cancer Vixen.)

  1. Sayonada says...

    I met her when i filmed her for a video shoot for an in-store promotion bath & bodyworks was running. She was exactly as i expected: kinda, quirky, a little nervous, and DEFINITELY a vixen. So glad to hear the book will become a movie — it’s a great story!

  2. love the illustrations! what a kick ass woman :)

    • Thanks Tammy.
      I love A Cup of Jo!

  3. Incredible illustrations that draw you in immediately- thanks a lot for posting. Wasn’t aware of the movie adaptation but now can’t wait till it’s released!

  4. Hi Joanna,

    Thanks so, so, so much for this post! Marisa’s illustrations are incredible and I love that she sees herself as a cancer-kicking vixen!

    Cancer has always been a disease I’ve feared after losing my mom when I was twelve. After being diagnosed with cancer and beating it, my thoughts sometimes drift to it coming back. But I encourage myself to stay positive and not allow the negative thoughts to take over.

    Instead, I’ve been volunteering with the Canadian Cancer Society for three years now. And I’ve been asked to act as a spokesperson for the Society at community events across Toronto. I’ll be sharing my cancer story, why I’ve joined the fight against cancer, and where the funds raised go. I’ll also be doing media interviews. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to support and give hope to those battling this horrible disease.

    Thanks again for all you do!

    • Thank you for all you do to fight cancer!

  5. Laura says...

    Wow, I was just thinking YESTERDAY, I wonder why the Cup of Jo has not written a breast cancer post? And voila. You ladies always on it!

    • Hey Laura, thanks! A Cup of Jo is the best!

  6. Polly says...

    Hello everyone,
    I was also diagnosed with breast cancer at 39, my children were 7 and 3, it was a tough old time! But nearly three years later I am really well, looking after myself and beginning to feel a bit more relaxed about life again. So happy to read that this is the case for many others who have commented on this page.
    I also just wanted to say a really big thank you to Cup of Jo: I love that intermingled with posts on beauty, interiors, kids, books, there are also these occasional posts on cancer and mortality. Just as in life – these things are not separate and I love this space for embracing everything from having smooth arms to what it feels like to deal with such a serious disease! I would never post a comment on a breast cancer website – I wouldn’t want to feel that my identity was so starkly defined. But here it is all part of life’s rich tapestry, and I feel comfortable with that.
    Also thanks for the recommendation of Marisa’s book, I hadn’t come across that before and will look out for it.

    • Courtney McGowan says...

      I had to comment on Pollo’s comment. Beautifully written and so true, Pollo. That’s also why I love visiting Cup of Jo every day. Sending you well wishes for continued health!

    • anne says...

      Thank you so much for this article, Joanna – and the comment, Polly! Having lost my boyfriend to cancer several years ago, it feels so good to read a blog that addresses such heavy subjects at least occasionally (though I do have to say it sometimes bothers –or bothered– me how topics are ‘intermingled’ so casually when, in reality, at times, these problems seem to eat up your whole life… Polly’s comment just made me realize that it’s actually a very, very good thing! Thanks for that insight!).
      On a slightly different note, I just ordered the book for my best friend’s wife who will be doing her last round of chemo this coming Monday. Luckily, it’s easily available even in German bookshops.
      With best wishes from my time zone to yours!

    • So glad you’re doing well Polly!

  7. Oh my goodness! This is so amazing. Ah it is weird you know, we live our lives like we want, we love our relatives, spouses and wife, boyfriends and girlfriends, children and we feel we are gonna do it forever. And boom, something like this happens and you are almost surprised in the beginning, “what am i gonna die? sooner than i thought? (a.k.a. 120 years old)”. And then you have to fight with all your strength because this is the biggest and most important game of your life. It’s funny and dooming the same time. But Marisa made it, well done strong lady!! I wish you the best. And thanks Joanna, too. Always inspiring and thoughtful in what you publish :)

    To cheer things up, who wants to check my first Skillshare course? I was told but I am adorable in it :D It’s for free too:

    • Thank you Despoina! A Cup of Jo is the best!

  8. G says...

    The day you started this blog was a blessing for many of us Jo. Thank you.

  9. Kristina says...

    I lost my Mama to breast cancer when she was only 56 years old. Besides the obvious pain of that I also live with a fear of having to go through it (subtle but still there). Thank you for speaking up about this important and difficult topic and sharing such a positive story and perspective! The book (and Marisa herself) looks amazing! To everyone out there dealing with cancer in one way or another, I’m sending you love, you are my heroes. xx

    • Thanks Kristina! And A Cup of Jo is the best!

  10. Sarah says...

    I’ve been a big fan of Marisa since reading “Just Who the Hell Is She, Anyway” in high school. Love to see her still kicking ass!

  11. Azlin says...

    Dear Joanna, this is so timely! I’ve been wanting to write to you to do a post on cancer. I was diagnosed last year and I’m a Cancer! And now this :) It’s nice and helps to read what other vixens and warriors are experiencing, especially if it’s humorous.
    I love your blog and read it everyday. Please share more of such posts. Keep up the great work!!
    P.S. It’ll be great if you can share more stories of mothers or families with older kids like tweens and teens too :)

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Thank you so much, Lin! And sending a big hug your way xoxo

  12. Michelle A. says...

    I love her attitude! Also, if there’s any way she’ll agree to sharing her “beauty uniform” with Cup of Jo for your column, I’d love to know her secrets, she is stunning!

    • Interesting idea! How great is A Cup of Jo!

  13. Leah says...

    Wow. What great timing. I, too, am just beginning this “journey” as my surgeon’s letter said, received today. Just had biopsies #2 and #3, today. I love this blog so much, and just happened to notice a work colleague reading it, today, in a meeting! She’s 25; I just turned 50. What a great testament to how this blog reaches women of all ages and stages of life. Thank you, thank you! I will be finding this book asap.

    • Leah says...

      Thank you for writing <3 Sending you healing thoughts. You're not alone on this journey!

    • Peace, love and perfect health to you Leah!

  14. Katie says...

    I love this! Thank you!

  15. jeannie says...

    Awesome post. thank you.

    • What’s better than A Cup of Jo?

  16. Diane says...

    This made me tear up. Loved it.

  17. Alice Quin says...

    Love this. Thank you for sharing.

  18. Kristen says...

    To all the brave fighters, survivors, and supporters of those on cancer journeys: a friend and breast cancer survivor has also used her art for good, creating “dhremo” chemo bag stickers with positive messaging. Seriously, not trying to sell anything, it’s just amazing and inspiring!

    A link if you’d like to see:

  19. I love this! I’m glad to see real glimpses of what cancer looks like, not the unbelievable, everything is rosy face that so many put on.


    • Reality is so much more relatable for me, too!

  20. emily collins says...

    this is so surreal! i have been reading your blog religiously for years. i only read about 4 blogs every day and yours is one of them. i don’t really fit your demographic – i am older than your mother. i live in florence, italy, now, and tonight i am a stone’s throw from the sea in a tiny town in the cinque terre called corniglia. i had breast cancer about 10 years ago, and marisa’s book meant the world to me. i have bought multiple copies and given it as gifts to new and old friends who are dealing with breast cancer. thanks for bringing her and the book to your readers. and thank you to marisa, too.

    • Wow. My husband is a Florentino. I’ve been to Cinque Terra. Thank you for the kind words. Peace, love and perfect health to you!

  21. Ingrid says...

    I loved the book! Thanks for interviewing her. I’m sure it will make more people aware of her work. Cancer Vixen was my first graphic novel, and I recommended it for my book group. We all loved it.

    • Thanks Ingrid. And how much do we love A Cup of Jo?

    • XO. How much do we love A Cup of Jo?

  22. Megan says...

    Joanna, thanks for posting this. It made me laugh and rang so true! My sweet mother was diagnosed last year with Stage IV breast cancer at age 52. It also happened to coincide with planning my wedding, and we often joked about pulling the “cancer card.” At one dress fitting gone awry (yes, I know, a dress fitting), she joked that she was going to rip her wig off, slam it down on the table, and pull out the “cancer card.” It was of course all talk but certainly lightened the mood.

    • Humor is the best medicine! Peace, love and perfect health to your mom and all the women in your life!

  23. Bravo to her. My SIL had breast cancer and has been wearing T-shirts saying “These tried to kill me” and her kids all have breast cancer shirts with slogans. We can’t all be microbiologists coming up with a cure (although the more the merrier on that front). Whatever you do, more power to you!

    • Power to the Vixens! How much do we love A Cup of Jo!

  24. Catherine says...

    Thank you so much for sharing. You might find it odd, but this will be the perfect gift for my mother-in-law. She was diagnosed around the holidays and lives in a small town. There isn’t a large population of cancer survivors to talk to nearby so she has relied on personal essay and books written by survivors. However, being in the house all day gets her stir-crazy and she can’t seem to get through any of them. This will be the perfect account for her to actually finish and enjoy and hopefully she’ll get a few chuckles along the way.

    • Jean says...

      Your mother in law is blessed to have you! Sometimes there’s less than love/like in that relationship.

    • Peace, love and perfect health to your mother-in-law and all the women in your life! And how much do we love A Cup of Jo!

    • Thank you. Peace, love and perfect health to all! How much do we love A Cup of Jo!

  25. I’m definitely going to share this with my Grandma who has been in remission for nearly a year! She would love the illustrations and relating to someone like this. :)

    • Peace, love and perfect health to your Grandma and all the women in your life!

  26. I really like it. I have a constant subconscious fear of cancer. I like this more realistic viewpoint, showing real life and that humor and lightheartedness can still be a part of your life, even when something terrible is happening.

    • Thank you! And how much do we love A Cup of Jo!

  27. Ella says...

    Thank you for posting that! I’m only 25 but recently had a mastectomy, and trying to inject humour in the whole situation made me feel a bit more human. My best friend sent me a card which read ‘Congrats on the new boobs!’, and for the first time in weeks I laughed! I had a psychotherapist in the weeks leading up to the surgery and she also mentioned that writing would help. I now go back and read through my entries during that time and I can see that I kind of kicked some serious butt during that time! I definitely feel like a much stronger person.

    • You sound like such a brave, strong woman. A serious butt kicker :)
      Just had to say that.

    • Humor is the best med. Go VIxen Ella!

  28. Marissa says...

    Joanna, it is because of you that I got into graphic novels and now I just love them! I first read French Milk on your reco and all my friends think I am a huge nerd, but I just think they’re great. Love, love this interview!

  29. This is great. The 100,000 Watt smiles are spot on. And, when you have it, no one calls it cancer or uses the word tumor. It’s “a growth” or “a mass”.

    I’ve been cancer free for coming up six years now :)

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Peace love and perfect health to you!

  30. Laura says...

    Thank you. I’m 40 and was diagnosed with breast cancer less than 3 weeks ago. I started chemotherapy last Thursday and it sucks. It’s good to see this put into words and pictures.

    • alexandra says...

      Best of luck with that, yes, it sucks, but you can get through it. Try to think of the chemicals kicking the butt of those pesky cancer cells, that’s what I did. (Same diagnosis about 2 years ago, I am still here, with new and different hair!)

    • Laura also says...

      I was 40 when I was diagnosed too. It’s a sucky year of treatment, but each chemo session you knock out gets you closer to being done. I’m 4 years out and finally at the point that I’m not convinced that EVERYTHING is the cancer coming back (just 75 percent of things : ). But there’s nothing like getting back to normal life when it’s all done. Boring, blah day to day life. Nothing makes this more magical than cancer!

      Oh and my hair and eyelashes came back like gangbusters!

    • Peace, love and perfect health to you!

  31. Katie says...

    Wow. Her illustrations are great. I especially like the idea that not everyone’s relationship to cancer is the same.

    The brilliant Teva Harrison of Toronto has a forthcoming graphic memoir of a similar vein, for those interested: