Episode 10: Ode to Randall Munroe

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Hi everyone,

Instead of publishing a new episode today, we're going to take a break to look at another cartoonist.

When I think of cartoons about cancer, the first thing I think of (before even this website) are the amazing drawings of Randall Munroe, the artist behind xkcd and What If. He is one of my cartooning heroes, not only for his incredible skill at conveying a lot of meaning with a few simple line drawings, but also for his absolute genius at making complex topics understandable. 

xkcd is a webcomic about, according to Munroe, "romance, sarcasm, math, and language." Munroe has a background in physics and computer science, and many of his cartoons are about those topics, too.  But he's not kidding about the romance. (Among the best of those: Angular Momentum.) And though (to my knowledge--I don't know him personally) he is not a father himself, he is the author of one of my favorite cartoons on that topic, too.

In 2011 his then fiancee (now wife) was diagnosed with breast cancer. (To my knowledge she is now doing fine. I certainly hope she is.) He is a researcher by nature, and his reading lead him to publish several cartoons on the topic. They're so good, they put other cancer cartoonists to shame. Of them, perhaps my favorite is Lanes. It is a scientifically accurate and emotionally poignant description of the meaning of the word "prognosis," which is a term that many cancer patients misunderstand. (Perhaps they misunderstand it because we doctors aren't very good at communicating it. Munroe doesn't have that problem.)

Another xkcd cartoon that deserves special mention is Radiation. Brilliant doesn't even begin to describe this simple-seeming, yet information-packed and beautifully clear graphic. It was published soon after the Tohoku earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011. As a radiation oncologist, I've used it over and over again to explain concepts of radiation safety to patients, medical students, residents, and others.

But xkcd isn't Munroe's only work. If you're not already a regular reader of his website What If, you're in for a treat! If you are a regular reader, then you know what I'm talking about. It's usually published every Tuesday, and I make a point of going there as soon as I log into my computer on Tuesday mornings. In it, Munroe uses real science to explain absurd hypothetical situations. I'm always fascinated, entertained, and I often laugh pretty hard. It's hard to pick a favorite out of the many entries that have been published, but if you're new to his work you could do worse than to start with Relativistic BaseballRaindrop, and Tug of War. Once you read those, you'll be hooked, and you'll want to read all of them!

Thanks for reading along today. Cancer Ninja will be back next week with more about Jane and her cancer journey!