Reading Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals is a profoundly humbling experience. I’ve mentioned before that there are many books that I have put off reading because I was too afraid. Lorde’s The Cancer Journals is one such book, the more so in the last fourteen years since Lorde’s death. The journal is a testament to survival: she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1979,
Reading the book at a distance of nearly thirty years, I am struck by the changes in the health care system, and the persistence of contributing factors to breast cancer. The technology has improved tremendously, but have the attitudes?
The reason I say I’m being humbled by reading the book is, as many women of color who came of age and came out reading Audre Lorde, she was a Larger than Life figure, and one whom we--foolish children that we were--could never imagine actually dying. I think of her as a tremendously powerful,lesbian, “a Black Woman Warrior Poet doing my work, come to ask you, are you doing yours?” (CJ 19).
And she is all of that. But she’s also a woman who came out of anesthesia screaming and trembling with cold. Who, on being discharged from the hospital, was bullied by a nurse into wearing a lambswool prosthesis (pink, by the way).
And it was in reading that I was able to see her as a mere human, someone with moments of pain and weakness and neediness, and someone who is sometimes just to tired to put up one more struggle
She talks about the tremendous pressure to wear prosthesis from everyone in the breast cancer community, which she calls Cancer Inc.,
Here we were, in the offices of one of the top breast cancer surgeons in New York City. Every woman there either had a breast removed, might have a breast removed, or was afraid of having a breast removed. And every woman there could have used a reminder that having one breast did not mean her life was over, nor that she was less a woman, nor that she was condemned to the use of a placebo in order to feel good about herself and the way she looked.
Yet a woman who has one breast and refuses to hide that fact behind a pathetic puff of lambswool which has no relationship nor likeness to her own breasts, a woman who is attempting to come to terms with her changed landscape and changed timetable of life and with her own body and pain and beauty and strength, that woman is seen as a threat to the “morale” of a breast surgeon’s office....
As I sat in my doctor’s office trying to order my perceptions of what had just occurred, I realized that the attitude toward prosthesis after breast cancer is an index of this society’s attitudes towards women in general as decoration and externally defined sex object.
You see, the warrior continues to fight, but it’s important not to forget the mere humanity that’s there as well.