Book Review: Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person

Computer trainer Miriam Engelberg had always been a voracious reader of comics, from the popular satire of Mad Magazine to the more literary and autobiographical comics written by Harvey Pekar, Lynda Barry and others. Following the birth of her son Aaron, she set out to create a few panels of her own to spoof the vagaries of parenthood and what she and her husband saw as a “conspiracy among parents” not to reveal the tedium and exhaustion of child rearing — all to avoid the risk of failure to lure unsuspecting couples to the club! When her smart, comedic talents surfaced at work, Miriam’s executive director asked her to write cartoons about the world of the nonprofit. Soon appointed “chief cartoonist”, Engelberg created a monthly comic strip called Planet 501c3 that was posted on the website and later featured in two books on strategic planning in the nonprofit sector.

Engelberg Book Cover CROPWhen Engelberg was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 2001 at age 43, it didn’t take long before she started to doodle. She created her first cartoon about cancer while waiting for the biopsy, before she even knew she had a malignant tumor. As the disease progressed, drawing comics was a lifeline and way to resist the pressure she felt “to become someone nobler and more courageous” than she was. She quipped, “Maybe the path of shallowness deserves more attention!” Her book did just that.

Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics by Miriam Engelberg is a collection of short comic strips that deal with varied aspects of her cancer experience, from the awkwardness of post-diagnosis “social niceties” to the realities of nausea and baldness, to existential questioning, despair and isolation, to among other things the mind-numbing effects of daytime TV.

In “Waiting”, Miriam reveals where the mind can go when anticipating test results. Thinking about things on the bucket list yet undone; imagining your children growing up without you; replaying scenes from movies about people facing scary diseases; being absorbed in feelings of futility; agonizing about one’s life being reduced to a Kubler-Ross stage (“Maybe I’m just in Denial”) and finally railing against the notion altogether (“Fuck Kubler-Ross!!”).


Then a routine encounter with her well intentioned Christian radiotherapy tech (and sock-puppet sidekick “Cheer Up Kitty”) brings comic relief to the personal invasions that patienthood brings to life.


Miriam Engelberg’s book, published in 2006, provides a humorous and enlightening counter-narrative to the upbeat, sheroic survivorship trope that is so easily accepted in pink ribbon culture. Unlike its counterpart, the soon-to-be-a-movie graphic memoir Cancer Vixen (2009), Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person isn’t chock full of inspiration, triumph, personal transformation, or a vivacious style that thrives on feminine accessories. But it isn’t a bummer either. Engelberg’s book is smart, funny, and irreverent while the rough lines, basic colors, and messy drawings simultaneously reflect a deeper message of truth, personal struggle, and limited time.

Miriam Engleberg died just a few months after her book was published.

Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics by Miriam Engelberg. Harper Collins, 2006. 144pp. ISBN: 978-0060789732, $14.99 (paper).


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