A doctor fighting cancer, one drawing at a time

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Like a lot of dads, Andrew Howard enjoys drawing pictures of dinosaurs with his daughters. What surprised him, though, was just how much he enjoyed it.

“I never took art classes in high school or college, but I loved drawing with them,” he said. “Sometimes even after they went to bed, I would stay up and keep working on my dinosaur because I had gotten into drawing it.”

Howard, a radiation oncologist at the University of Chicago Medicine, has turned this newfound love for drawing into a way to help his patients. He’s drawing an online comic called Cancer Ninja that explains the basic biology and step-by-step development of cancer, from diagnosis to treatment.

Howard said he had been frustrated by how little his patients knew about cancer and its treatment. Some of them confused the difference between chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and why they might need one or both. One patient even told him she didn’t understand how she got cancer because she had avoided hot sauce her whole life.

At first he thought he wanted to write a book, but his wife, after seeing how much he enjoyed drawing with their daughters, suggested he combine that with his passion for educating patients.

Cancer Ninja tells the story of Jane, a woman who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. The drawings are simple and clean, mostly black and white. They have just enough text to explain the scientific concepts, a style that was also inspired by his children.

“One of the neat things about having kids is you suddenly get exposed to all this children’s literature you weren’t aware of. Some of it is amazing, and these artists are able to convey so much with simple line drawings,” he said.

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Howard said the patients who know more about their disease ask tough questions that keep doctors on their toes. He recalled the daughter of one of his patients who was proactive about researching her mother’s breast cancer, and wasn’t afraid to challenge him. He found himself double-checking results and doing extra searches of the literature to see if anything new could be applied to her situation.

“It made me realize a well-educated patient gets better care,” he said. “Or maybe a better way to say that is: A well-educated patient helps a doctor be a great doctor.”

So far he has posted six episodes, and hopes to compile them into a book he can give out to patients too.

“I want people to see there’s a logical chain of events in just about every cancer patient,” he said. “I’m sure it hits them like a big jumble all at once, so I’m just hoping this helps them.”

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Read an interview with Dr. Howard about Cancer Ninja from the Chicago Tribune.

About Matt Wood (478 Articles)
Matt Wood is a senior science writer for the University of Chicago Medicine and editor of the Science Life blog.
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