The Cancer Journals: Special Edition
Aunt Lute Books, 1997
Reviewed by Gaila Sims
“Where are the models for what I’m supposed to be in this situation? But there were none. This is it, Audre. You’re on your own.” In 1977, Audre Lorde underwent surgery to biopsy a lump she had found in her breast, which turned out to be benign. However, after finding a second lump the following year and enduring a second biopsy, Lorde learned that she had cancerous cells in her right breast. After much consideration, Lorde decided to undergo a mastectomy, which removed her right breast. Upon discovering little discussion of the trauma of breast cancer available in the public sphere, especially for women at the intersections of blackness, queerness, and disability, Lorde chose to publish The Cancer Journals in 1980 to provide a model where she had found none. This Special Edition of The Cancer Journals, released in 1997, contains the original publication of The Cancer Journals but also includes tributes to Audre Lorde written by women who mourned her passing in 1992. While she expressed her disappointment at finding no examples to draw from during her experience of cancer in the late 1970s, it is clear in the tributes in this edition that she herself had fulfilled that role for the many women who celebrated her after her death.
The Cancer Journals combines journal entries written during her hospital stay and in the months of her recovery, speeches made around the time of her first surgery, and essays focusing on the larger experience of breast cancer and its treatment. Lorde seeks to provide a discussion of the issues surrounding a subject steeped in silence. Though thousands of women are diagnosed with this terrible disease each year (numbers that have only increased since the book’s original publication), Lorde found that there were few resources available to work through her psychological and physical reactions to her diagnosis and treatment. While she discusses her interactions with nurses, other patients, and an organization called Reach for Recovery, there were few spaces available to unpack her experience as a queer black woman grappling with this illness and her healing. In a speech included in the book entitled “The Transformation of Silence in Language and Action,” Lorde argues that the only way to process her feelings and to help her community is by breaking the silence around illness and mortality. She writes, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” The Cancer Journals fulfills this role, recounting Lorde’s experience of both the physical pain of her mastectomy and the psychological crisis wrought by her close encounter with death.
In an essay entitled “Breast Cancer: A Black Lesbian Feminist Encounter,” Lorde focuses on the decision to undergo surgery and the first few days after her mastectomy. Though she feels relief and relatively little pain in the first two days, the pain really begins to set in on the third day. In journal entries from her time in the hospital along with her memories of this period, Lorde reveals the experience of bodily trauma. She writes, “I must let this pain flow through me and pass on. If I resist or try to stop it, it will detonate inside me, shatter me, splatter my pieces against every wall and person that I touch.” It is rare, I think, to read about the physical experience of pain, especially pain after such a traumatic operation. Lorde records the throbbing in her shoulder, the dull ache of her chest, a sharp stabbing where her breast used to reside. For women, whose pain is not always acknowledged, and for black women, who are stereotyped as tough and unyielding, Lorde’s vulnerability is astonishing. She examines these physical sensations to work through her pain in those first few days but also to give voice to women’s pain on a broader level. For women undergoing similar surgeries, for women who need a way to work through their own experience of illness and healing, Audre Lorde provides a means and model for struggling with pain.
In addition to examining the physical effects of her mastectomy, Lorde also discusses its psychological impact. She expresses her grief in losing her right breast, not only because of the sexual pleasure she associated with it, but also because she had lost a part of herself. Though she mourns its absence, she bristles at interactions with hospital staff and others who encourage her to wear a prosthesis to hide the absence of her breast. In an essay entitled “Breast Cancer: Power Vs. Prosthesis,” Lorde discusses the emphasis placed on women’s physical appearance in relation to cancer, instead of their health and wellness. She writes, “[t]he emphasis upon wearing a prosthesis is a way of avoiding having women come to terms with their own pain and loss, and thereby, with their own strength.” For Lorde, wearing a prosthesis constitutes another form of silence, a way to make others comfortable while neglecting oneself. She argues that seeing other women in the world displaying the results of their mastectomies could help demystify the experience of breast cancer, and that prostheses merely hide what does not need to be hidden. She also explores the fear produced by her brush with death. She does not delve into the actual question of death; rather, she is terrified that she will no longer be able to do her work. And while her surgery is successful and her health stabilizes at the time of the book’s original publication, this special edition shows the end of the work to which she was so committed.
The last twenty pages of The Cancer Journals: Special Edition demonstrate the impact of Audre Lorde and her work on women all over the United States. After her death on November 11, 1992, tributes to her life and influence were gathered and published to accompany the earlier publication. These tributes, from women who knew her personally and from those who never met her but appreciated her work, show the success of her determination to end silences. While she had found no model for her experience of cancer (and her other works show that she had found no model in many areas of her life), the tributes included in this edition confirm that she had become a model for many other people. While she was in the hospital after her surgery, Lorde wrote about the community of women who visited her. She described the love and support of her network of friends—women bringing food and blankets to the hospital, taking her kids to school, researching alternative treatments and providing company. While her passing meant that she could no longer physically contribute to her community of women, her work ensures she will always have a spiritual connection to them – to those she knew and loved during her lifetime and to those of us who read and appreciate her work today. As one of the tributes declares to the incomparable Audre Lorde, “Now it’s up to each of us to figure out how to take what you’ve given and use it, every day of our lives.”