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Kimiko Tobimatsu shares unfamiliar breast cancer story in graphic novel

Kimiko Tobimatsu is a breast cancer survivor, but you won't catch her wearing a pink ribbon anytime soon.

Kimiko Tobimatsu is a breast cancer survivor, but you won't catch her wearing a pink ribbon anytime soon.

After being diagnosed at 25 years old, Tobimatsu says as a queer, mixed-race woman, she felt disconnected from the hyper-feminized image often associated with the disease.

Now in remission, the Toronto lawyer hopes her new graphic novel, "Kimiko Does Cancer," will serve as a resource for patients who don't see themselves in conventional breast cancer stories.

"The dominant narrative is around one demographic of patient, and so not fitting there made me feel kind of out of place," Tobimatsu, 31, said in a recent Zoom interview.

"I wanted to show that there's other cancer patients out there with different types of concerns."

"Kimiko Does Cancer," which is illustrated by Keet Geniza, documents Tobimatsu's experience with breast cancer as it relates to her personal journey and the societal issues that shape our understanding of the disease.

Tobimatsu said getting cancer at such a young age shifted her biological sense of time.

The impacts of treatment on her fertility forced Tobimatsu to confront questions about family planning well before she and her then-partner were ready.

Even post-cancer, Tobimatsu said she's managing the effects of medication-induced menopause, including hot flashes, insomnia and sexual health concerns, that most of her peers will only experience in middle age.

But as she sought guidance from doctors, Tobimatsu said she started noticing trends in how the medical system handles reproductive health issues.

Tobimatsu said reproductive cancers often raise concerns related to gender expression and sexuality. When dealing with questions such as whether to get reconstructive breast surgery, Tobimatsu said she felt like the health-care consensus was pushing her to conform to a cis-heteronormative conception of what women look like.

"(Many) in the queer community, but also many straight women, are deciding, 'No, I want to stay flat,'" Tobimatsu said. "I think all that kind of gets silenced when we choose this one overly feminine image that we connect with breast cancer."

Tobimatsu said these stereotypes are reinforced through the pink ribbons that have become the universal symbol of breast cancer awareness.

This branding not only perpetuates the ideal of the pretty and peppy breast cancer patient, said Tobimatsu, but strips the disease of its political ramifications.

She said most breast cancer fundraising tends to focus on finding a cure, rather than addressing systemic inequities in screening. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Black women die from breast cancer at a 40 per cent higher rate than white women, while the incidence of the disease is roughly the same for both races.

"The decision to focus on treatment rather than prevention is kind of a depoliticizing approach," said Tobimatsu. "By focusing on one image of the breast cancer patient, it denies things like gaps in health."

Tobimatsu bristles at the saccharine sentiment that cancer can make you "a better person." Cancer is a brutal and often fatal disease, she said, and those sober realities should receive the same attention as uplifting stories of survival.

But in roundabout way, Tobimatsu said cancer prompted her to make changes for the better. In the aftermath of her treatment, she decided to seek out therapy, ended a relationship that had run its course and learned to set limits on work.

"I used certain tools that I had to develop through cancer to help me afterwards," she said. "That's not to say that I wouldn't have developed those tools in due course, but I think they were fast-tracked."

"Kimiko Does Cancer" hit shelves last month. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2020.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press