U.S. National Institutes of Health

Class 2: Stories of Illness—The Patient’s Experience


Students examine patients’ stories of illness, focusing on how the medium of comics helps facilitate understanding of another person’s experiences and promotes empathy between reader and writer/artist. Students also explore how comics can challenge preconceptions about illness, by showing what it feels like from the point of view of a person with an illness.

Students read excerpts from two “graphic pathographies” (memoirs about illness using the comics medium). My Degeneration focuses on the author’s experience with Parkinson’s disease, and Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person explores the unfair expectations that can accompany a cancer diagnosis. “Faces” by Kevin Cheng shows how to draw simple faces that express a variety of emotions.

Two creative activities engage students in writing and drawing exercises. They use the Writing Prompts to explore what it is like to experience (or be around) illness. Students practice and draw faces, learning how to show emotions with simple shapes and line. Drawing Faces offers step-by-step video instructions from Michael Green’s Graphic Medicine Channel on YouTube.

  • Cheng, Kevin. “Faces” In See What I Mean: How to Use Comics to Communicate Ideas. Brooklyn, NY: Rosenfeld Media, 2012, pp. 47—49.
  • Dunlap-Shohl, Peter. My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2015.
  • Engelberg, Miriam. Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person: A Memoir in Comics. New York, NY: Harper, 2006, first 20 pages.
Creative Activity Materials
  • Writing Prompts (PDF)
  • Drawing Faces (PDF)

  1. Discuss My Degeneration
    • What was the author’s initial response to receiving the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease? How did his reaction change over time?
    • What role did doctors play in affecting his reaction to the diagnosis?
    • How does the author depict his experience of Parkinson’s disease?
    • After becoming ill, in what ways is he treated differently by others? Stigmatized?
    • Discuss some of the visual metaphors used in the book. What do these metaphors communicate that would be difficult to do using words alone?
  2. Discuss Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person
    • What do you think the title of the book means?
    • Are sick people expected to be something other than “shallow?” Are they supposed to act and feel a certain way? What if they don’t?
    • What does society ask of people who embrace the “sick role?”
    • The drawings in this book are simple, even child-like. Discuss whether and how this style affects the power of the narrative, and compare the reading experience with other books (such as My Degeneration) that are drawn in a more “advanced” way.
  3. Discuss why you would or wouldn’t recommend these books to patients with the illnesses described in them.
  4. Discuss daily diary entries as a class.
    • If students are comfortable doing so, have volunteers read their diary entries for the week while the other students listen and draw something they heard on 4 x 6 index cards. Invite several different people read their diary entries, and then have the students walk around the room and take a look at the images people drew from what they heard.
    • How did the activity affect the way you observed your surroundings?
    • What did you hear that was surprising?
    • Do you remember seeing or hearing things that you wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t been assigned this diary?
    • Other thoughts about the daily diary?