Geoff Augustine has always looked for the humor in everything—even cancer.
The Aussie cartoonist began drawing as a child, taking inspiration from satirical humor magazines like “Mad” and “Punch.” In 1976, his career flourished with his daily comic strip “OSSIE” appearing in Australia’s major daily newspapers. What followed was a flurry of professional achievements that included Hallmark cards, Mattel jigsaw puzzles and the creation of a dual-colored character mascot, Cheer Champs, that became a national sports licensing icon.
While he worked, Augustine used cigarette breaks as a way to wind down in between drawing sessions. Mirroring the U.S., nearly half of adult men and one third of adult women in Australia smoked in the 1970s. Having started smoking early on in his career, Augustine carried the common habit for many years until a serious health scare.
“A pulmonary embolism in 2010 stopped me in my tracks, and I was strongly advised to quit smoking,” Augustine says. “I finally quit in 2012 and I’ve been told since, ‘It’s never too late to quit!’”
Though Augustine gave up cigarettes, he noticed troubling symptoms popping up five years later. An increasingly hoarse voice, shortness of breath, fatigue, coughing and chills led him to an initial diagnosis of bronchitis. After no improvement, Augustine’s doctor referred him to a cardiologist for heart and lungs examinations. The results brought Augustine to an oncologist, where a bronchoscopy finally determined the cause of his symptoms six months after they started: stage III non-small cell lung cancer.
Augustine’s cancer was inoperable and advanced, meaning intense treatment was on the docket right away.
“I was scheduled for six weeks of daily radiation interspersed with weekly chemotherapy, or as the oncologist put it, ‘Everything but the kitchen sink!’” Augustine recalls. “Due to the position of the tumor, I completely lost my voice and ability to take anything but liquids. Then, it was straight into 12 months of immunotherapy followed by a lung resection in December 2019.”
In the midst of this tumultuous time, Augustine turned to his happy place—his drawing board.
While initially shocked by the diagnosis, that shock quickly turned into disdain and then, ultimately, ridicule. He hastily drew a cartoon about facing death (“What’s terminal? Is it bad?” “No! It’s heavenly!” read the cartoon) to “find the funny” in his cancer journey.
“My life had changed forever and, in the weeks and months that followed, my talent was challenged like never before,” says Augustine. “While I’d always looked for humor everywhere and in everything, suddenly faced with chemo, radiation therapy, immunotherapy plus surgery, I ask you, how can you laugh at all that? Where is the funny? Where’s the humor?”
Throughout what Augustine describes as “endless, restless and sleepless chemo nights,” he would scribble down ideas pertaining to every aspect of his situation. The next day, he would approach them at his drawing board, attempting to flesh out these jumbled jottings into cartoons that could offer him comfort and make others smile. Doing so pushed him into confronting his diagnosis and not only accepting the prognosis but coping with it, too.
“In the acts of writing and drawing, I’m completely absorbed in the subject matter of my predicament, and I must embrace cancer to find the humor,” Augustine says of his drawing process. “Every day, I’m forced to face up to cancer and to look for every chance to laugh at it and ridicule it.”
Returning to his daily newspaper origins, Augustine would write and draw at random anywhere and everywhere. The chemotherapy chair, in which he’d sit for up to four hours, was a particularly productive location. He’d bounce ideas off of his nurses and doctors, who began wanting to use the cartoons for lectures.
“After experiencing the reactions to my ‘cancer’ cartoons from oncology nurses, oncologists, surgeons, dietitians, therapists and fellow patients during treatments, I’m extremely aware of the positive impact of humor in these environments,” says Augustine. “My nurses and doctors fully embraced the cartoon humor.”
It was their encouragement that led Augustine to publish “Why Is He Laughing?: A Cartoonist’s Journey With Cancer,” a book consisting of hundreds of cartoons centered on his cancer experience that he describes as “a gift of humor from those situations and places recognizable by those living with cancer, their families and caregivers.” The publication is dedicated to health care professionals and a percentage of book sales is donated to lung cancer research.
After two years of treatment, Augustine’s health has stabilized. He still has a port in his arm and his oncologist is still watching his regular scans, but he’s continuing to draw and share daily cartoons on his Instagram that showcase the absurd comedy in a cancer diagnosis that isn’t often acknowledged.
Through finding the humor in his situation, Augustine says he and his family are a little happier and more ready to communicate, joking about the taboos of cancer and finding some relief in laughing.
He hopes his book of cancer-related cartoons encourages other warriors to do the same.
“I am so grateful to have the talent to ‘laugh’ at cancer—regardless of how personal. The cartoons are comforting and creating them still gives me happiness, positivity and a mental strength to confront cancer ‘head on,’” says Augustine. “Hopefully, they’ll act as a guide and lighten the burden for others. I appreciate that not everyone is able to create humor around cancer—but it is possible to look for humor, even in the most frightening places and situations.”
“Why Is He Laughing?: A Cartoonist’s Journey With Cancer” is available for purchase on Amazon. Keep up with Geoff Augustine’s latest cancer-related cartoons on Instagram at @geoffaugustine.