An illustrated guide to cancer by those living through it

Onco’zine captures the uncensored voices of those with cancer, aiming to debunk cancer-related myths and shine a light on real stories first-hand.

27 October 2021

“Telling people you have cancer is exhausting,” reads one page of a new publication Onco’zine. Commissioned by the Francis Crick Institute to accompany a new exhibition Outwitting Cancer (the first-ever exhibition in the UK to solely focus on cancer research), Onco’zine is a raw and powerful portrayal of what it means to have cancer or be a carer for someone who has cancer. We speak to Rebecca of Sadie May Studio, the London-based one-woman venture that put the zine together, about the project and how it seeks to debunk cancer-related myths specifically for 18-35-year-olds who may not typically engage with the subject.

Rebecca tells us: “My main focus was to showcase the voice of the patients and for the zine to be a space for them to tell their stories.” The Patient Advisory Panel (the members of the public who shared their experiences of cancer for the zine) collectively felt that discussions around cancer are not representative of how patients truly feel. With that in mind, Rebecca wanted to design the zine in a way that consciously “retains the unapologetic, raw and often humorous linguistic energy that came through when they shared their personal insights.” She adds: “I didn’t want to lose the authenticity of the content throughout the design process and aimed for the outcome to speak directly from those who have experienced cancer.”

Onco’zine tells its story through personable hand-rendered typography, giving the zine an air of accessibility as it relays its touching stories. It features a variety of definitions of what cancer is, from phrases like “town planning gone mad” to “losing control”, “fear”, “makes you re-evaluate your identity”, and “cancer is part of me but I’m not defined by cancer”. Elsewhere, one contributor recalled how she told her ex-boyfriend she had been diagnosed with cancer and he said: “Oh my god you’re going to lose a tit!” A reaction that made her feel better as he acknowledged how serious the situation was. It’s a zine quite like any other in its vast portrayal of the cancer experience. Far from being all doom and gloom, it addresses how, as one contributor writes, “as soon as I see the word cancer in a headline I instantly think it’s b*ll*cks!”


Sadie May Studio: Onco'zine (Copyright © Sadie May Studio 2021)

For Rebecca, “it was really eye-opening to hear the variations of individual perspectives from patients particularly on how they hoped listeners would react when given updates about their treatment.” While some people liked to be told they were “brave” or “a fighter”, others described how those same words are like “toxic positivity and that even silence would be better.” To encompass this range of emotion across the spectrum of cancer patients, Rebecca wanted the zine to feel immediate, human “and above all, relatable.” Drawing on the rich history of zines, she enacted the well-known cut and paste aesthetic to accentuate the voices of real-life people and to represent the collaborative DIY approach to the project. The designer adds: “Following the true spirit of a zine, I didn’t want to create an unnecessary visual barrier between the patient voice and the reader, it needed to feel honest.”

To add another human dimension to the design, Rebecca illustrated portraits of the participants as they hosted workshops discussing their experiences. In turn, giving a face to the name. Injecting a pop of colour to add a blast of positivity to the project too, Rebecca denotes the hope for future scientific developments that will hopefully help to stamp out cancer. Telling us more about the process, the designer was initially “conscious of the need to treat the patient’s stories with sensitivity but after meeting them and hearing what they had to say, I was struck by their openness and honesty and from some, a sense of indignation at the sometimes clumsy attempts from others to be ‘sensitive’ in response to their diagnosis and treatment.” In the end, she decided the publication should fundamentally shine a light on the patient voice in all its forms, expressing whatever they wanted to say.

All in all, Onco’zine aims to open up discussions around cancer, whether you know someone with it or not. Rebecca also hopes it inspires people to talk about it with those who are going through it first hand. “Even though we can’t control or predict cancer,” she finally goes on to say, “we can learn ways to try and support those who are going through it and know that the power of cancer research means there is hope for the future.”

GallerySadie May Studio: Onco'zine (Copyright © Sadie May Studio 2021)

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Sadie May Studio: Onco'zine (Copyright © Sadie May Studio 2021)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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