A Creative Outlet to Cope with Cancer

When New York City dermatologist Tamara Lazic Strugar, MD, was diagnosed with stage IV cancer in 2022, it spurred her to pursue a dream: to take time off and collaborate on a creative project with her two children to promote the importance of sun protection.

Tamara Lazic Strugar, MD, had spoken the word “cancer” countless times. As an associate clinical professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, she had taught the ins and outs of skin cancer to dermatology residents and medical students for more than a decade. As a medical dermatologist in Midtown Manhattan, she had told many patients that they were diagnosed with skin cancer. She had never imagined, though, that she would hear the “c” word applied to herself. In the spring of 2022, when she learned that she had stage IV colon cancer, it changed everything.

Dr. Lazic had always been sensitive with patients, she says, about how she delivered the news of a skin cancer diagnosis, whether it was an early basal cell carcinoma or a potentially life-threatening melanoma. She knew that hearing it could be shocking and scary. When her own cancer struck, she says, “I started paying more attention to what patients go through with skin cancer.” It shifted her perspective and motivated her.

“I had been wanting to write children’s books regarding skin health, but I had no free time while seeing 40 patients a day. It was just impossible. So when my diagnosis happened, I said, ‘You know what? Now is the time.’” She talked with her husband (a neurosurgeon affiliated with Yale) and their two kids, Mia, now 9, and Luka, 11, who agreed to help. She took a leave of absence from her practice to focus first on her treatment, including multiple surgeries and 24 rounds of four types of chemotherapy over the next 12 months. In between, when she felt well enough, she began to create a series of illustrated graphic novels called Skinventurez. She designated the first, The Sunscreaming Summer, to focus (among the escapades) on sun protection.

“My big idea was to leave a legacy for my profession — and for my family,” she says. “So I decided to make my family members the characters. The kids loved it and let me use their names.” Dr. Lazic at times felt like having cancer was a full-time job, with research, appointments and treatments, but she did have some free time while the kids were in school. She dove in and decided she wanted to keep control over the project and get it done as quickly as possible by self-publishing.

Mia and Luka helped Dr. Lazic come up with the storyline. They helped her make sure the plot and language would resonate with kids their age, or “at least those who might consider reading it,” said Luka. The story takes place in and around New York City, and the characters and their friends have fun while they learn a few things the hard way (including how brutal a sunburn can be.)

Dr. Lazic grew up in war-torn Serbia, so she researched and found a Serbian illustrator for the book, who captured just the style she wanted. The book was published in July 2023 after about a year of work, plus a website she named Skinventurez to go with it. “I wanted to start with skin cancer prevention as the focus of the first book, by educating young individuals from early on, which is really the time to intervene, she says. “It has brought me so much joy while fighting this very tough battle.”

How has becoming a cancer patient changed the kind of dermatologist she wants to be when she returns to practice? “I thought I was doing a great job,” she says, laughing. “But now I realize, even though my patients were very happy with me, there’s so much room for improvement and so little time that we have with them. I want to practice differently and spend more time with patients, but I don’t know how to make it happen with the way our health-care system is set up now. That scares me when I think about going back to work.”

A few days before this article was written, Dr. Lazic learned she has some new metastasis in her liver: “I first cried it out for an hour in my room. I couldn’t even speak, I was in so much shock. Then I composed myself and told the family. They know I will not keep information from them, and knowing the truth makes it much less scary for them.”

Her treatment options are limited and have a poorer prognosis because of the genetic type of her cancer. She has started chemotherapy again and will also research clinical trials and consider experimental therapy. She is hopeful: “I need to stay alive until my cure comes along. I hope that in the next few years there will be immunotherapy that will work for colon cancer like it does for skin cancer.”

In the meantime, she is focusing on her project, her family and their time together. “I’m still learning how to become comfortable with the uncertainty. I can’t really plan anything ahead of time. While it’s easier said than done, I am learning to live with less fear and to just live life to the fullest.”