by Mya K. Douglas
After Chestnut Hill resident Christian Patchell was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma (cancer) of the tongue in 2007, the then-33-year-old artist was forced to suffer through 31 radiation treatments and six chemotherapy treatments.
“My fiancée and I have this saying,” said Christian, known affectionately as “Patch.” It was just a few minutes after I sat down at Chestnut Hill Coffee, where he was sketching, to speak with him. “We ask each other if we are ‘TCB-ing.’ In other words, are we taking care of business?”
Melissa would ask this question the day he was driving her to work and complaining about the pain in his mouth. He had not been taking care of business, so he made an appointment with a doctor immediately. Several appointments and a biopsy later, he was diagnosed with cancer.
And his doctor would give him a piece of sound advice that he knew would help him get through it: “You’re a statistic of one.” And that was how Patch viewed it. No need to do internet research, no need to discover everything there is about the disease. He just knew he needed to fight.
Patch mentions in his book, “I Put the Can in Cancer: A Journey Through Pictures,” that the treatments for a cancer patient are as bad as the disease itself, often comparing the pain to “getting punched in the gut followed by a swift kick to the nuts.”
To battle one of America’s fiercest and most aggressive diseases is one thing, but to have both chemo and radiation at the same time in a short period of time is brutal, even for someone who was able to create his own form of therapy while fighting. “There was a point when nurses would just ask me if I would like my sketchbook,” he recalls. “They knew I needed it.”
It was then that the seed was planted, and “I Put the Can in Cancer” was born. But first, Patch made a promise to himself to draw a picture each day of treatment, describing how he felt that day. What was birthed wasn’t just an ordinary book of drawings showing stages of the disease. One day he’d draw a monster. The next day, a werewolf. Some days, sea animals. And other days, he pulled from one of his artistic inspirations, Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy comics.
“There was days I just didn’t have the strength to draw,” he recalls, but he did it anyway.
Like most creatives, Patch uses art to express how he feels, even if others don’t get it. But Patch knew his survival was his art. Even with support from his mother, family and fiancée, the pain for this cancer patient could never be adequately put into words. He credits two nurses who came to see him every day and eventually became his friends, and the surgical technician. “Troy (the technician) told me there would be days where I would feel like crap, and I wouldn’t be able to recognize myself.”
And though he was determined to keep his promise of drawing each day, as it got towards the end, it got harder with the IV’s and Patch feeling weak, so drawing wasn’t always possible. He would then leave a blank page in his book that he could fill in later.
Patch, who grew up in the Northeast and moved to Chestnut Hill five years ago, has given a lot of love back since overcoming cancer — speaking at schools, teaching his own students at the University of the Arts how to dig deeper and encouraging cancer patients.
And his bond with the Philadelphia Cartoonist Society seemed to grow when he was diagnosed. The members helped him with donations and encouraged him to finish his book, one that holds pain, joy and grief. “I wish it was a book I didn’t have to write,” said Patch, who is planning his wedding to Melissa in September of this year. “I hand them out a lot, especially to people who are dealing with cancer. It’s bittersweet.”
Chris Patchell’s work can be found at www.artbypatch.com. His book can also be purchased there. Mya K. Douglas is a journalist, Temple U. alumna and author from North Philadelphia who currently resides in Cheltenham. More of of Mya’s writing can be found at www.writermya.wordpress.com.