Cancer Vixen is the graphic narrative of Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s eleven-month cancer experience in 2004. Marchetto, a successful forty-something cartoonist for Glamour magazine and the New Yorker, serialized Cancer Vixen in Glamour while undergoing treatment. As well as the narrative of Marchetto’s diagnosis, treatment, and remission, Cancer Vixen recounts the story of Marchetto’s romance and engagement to restaurateur Silvano Marchetto, a narrative embedded in the graphic novel despite preceding it in actual chronology. The narrative explores fears about the cancer's effect on the relationship and about the loss of the chance to be a biological mother, as well as developing the relationship between the engaged couple and between Marisa and her mother (or "(s)mother," as she calls her).

The culture of cancer is another focus, including the social dynamics of having hair during cancer treatment and thus leaving oneself open to critique for not undertaking a strong enough chemotherapy. While this New York story, full of cuisine, couture (including images of the specific shoes Marchetto wore to each chemo), and cappuccino may recall the episodes of the television show Sex in the City featuring cancer, the brightly colored frames of this “Cancer in the City” tale also engage political issues like environmental causes of cancer and the reduced survival rates of women with cancer and no insurance.


As the title suggests, Cancer Vixen goes against the grain of many cancer narratives in tone as well as format. The association of cartoons with childhood and humor makes it a powerful medium for telling a cancer narrative, since the potential humor of cancer experiences may not always be evident to those without cancer. Visually dynamic, “morphing” cartoon avatars can be particularly apt as modes of rendering the bodily changes of cancer and cancer treatments. Marchetto’s work joins Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year, Miriam Engleberg’s Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, and Brian Fies’s Mom's Cancer in the genre of graphic narratives of cancer.

Marchetto’s allusions to popular culture (from the dime or Harlequin romance to Sex and the City) make her political commentary surprising and thus especially effective. The narrative is part of a growing genre of “crazy, sexy cancer” stories like the 2007 documentary of that name by Kris Carr. As such, it’s an important contribution to the cancer education of young women who may resist learning about the disease, doing self-exams, or having mammograms. They may be more ready to consider the reality of breast cancer, and its prevention, if they can imagine the illness as something experienced by a hip woman with really great shoes. Cancer Vixen is thus a great teaching text to share with college and high school students.

Primary Source

Cancer Vixen


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York



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