The Cancer Journals

This post (maybe like all my posts) is a mix of things: personal history, reading summary, analytical musings of cancer and a society that perpetuates assumptions about women’s bodies. Yesterday, I picked up Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals for the first time, and I couldn’t put it down until I was finished. I was surprised when I finished it that no one had ever recommended it to me. Instead, I was recommended readings that were rife with metaphor, that were overly nostalgic for times that could never be regained or recreated.

It’s like Audre Lorde reached into my heart and gently but firmly picked apart all the pain and fears I have for and of my body, my mom’s body, the cancer that was hers and that I know one day will be mine.


I do not wish my anger and pain and fear about cancer to fossilize into yet another silence, nor to rob me of whatever strength can lie at the core of this experience, openly acknowledged and examined. For other women of all ages, colors, and sexual identities who recognize that imposed silence about any area of our lives is a tool for separation and powerlessness, and for myself, I have tried to voice some of my feelings and thoughts about the travesty of prosthesis, the pain of amputation, the function of cancer in a profit economy, my confrontation with mortality, the strength of women loving, and the power and rewards of self-conscious living. (Lorde 7-8)

While my mom was sick and even after she died, I couldn’t stop writing about cancer. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I put together a chapbook of poems. I read two of them at my senior poetry reading. I wrote poems about my mom for every submission in my graduate poetry workshop—to the point that one of my classmates told me I needed to write about something else. It was hard for me to stop, though, because I felt guilty. In many ways, I had silenced her when she was alive. I was afraid of her anger and pain and fear. I had internalized the narratives that strength and willpower can overcome cancer, and I was terrified because I still saw cancer eating away at my mom—the strongest person I had ever met.

So I write about her and cancer often because her life mattered, because cancer is something that needs to be confronted rather than silenced or internalized, because my mom’s fight with cancer (once with breast cancer and again with ovarian) instilled in me a sense of the importance of support networks and of the love of strong women.


When I found out my mom died, I don’t remember what I did. I remember my dad saying “shit” because my Pap had called us that morning to tell us that she was dying, and she passed on our 20-minute drive to the hospice. She died, maybe as we were driving past the capitol building with the early spring sun glinting off the gold dome, or maybe as we circled up the winding mountain upon which the hospice sits. My dad must have called my brother’s day hab worker because she showed up with Matt, and I walked into my mom’s room with him. I remember watching his face to see if he’d cry because I wasn’t sure if I had ever seen him cry.

And then we went to Kroger, and I remember wondering if people could tell from my face or the way that I carried my body that my mom had just died.

When we got home, my new Macbook was waiting on the porch—a graduation gift from my parents. I asked my dad if I could set it up, and we took photos together in PhotoBooth.

I remember—days later—begrudgingly returning to campus for senior week. We went to an event in the middle of the afternoon, and I took a water bottle. I was told I couldn’t bring in outside drinks, and I started screaming that my mom had died. The girl wouldn’t let me in, so I dumped the water at her feet and cried. Nine days after my mom’s death, I curled my hair and sat in a folding chair in the rain for my graduation ceremony. When I walked up on the stage, I was handed flowers and a note my mom had written. I remember the tears mixing with rain on my face and the wailing of my favorite English professor when she walked up to me afterwards and asked how my mom was.

The summer after she died, I found her journals. I carried them to the back porch and read them as I rocked back and forth on the cream-colored glider that my mom would sit in.


I want to write rage but all that comes is sadness. We have been sad long enough to make this earth either weep or grow fertile. I am an anachronism, a sport, like the bee that was never meant to fly. Science said so. I am not supposed to exist. I carry death around in my body like a condemnation. But I do live. The bee flies. There must be some way to integrate death into living, neither ignoring it nor giving in to it. (11)

My mom’s journals were full of rage and sadness—rage at her own body, sadness at a family who had already said goodbye. When my mom was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer, she wasn’t supposed to live as long as she did. Yet she lived for 55 more chemotherapy treatments and four more years. She wasn’t supposed to exist and yet she did. She lived long enough for her hair to grow back—this time wiry and gray. She lived long enough to see me through college, to share all the family secrets with me, and to meticulously plan out her own memorial service.

Four years is a long time to be told that someone is dying, and when I said this once in the cafeteria on campus, a girl—not quite a friend—remarked, “Aren’t we all just slowly dying?” At the time, I wanted to slap her, but maybe it’s true. Some more quickly than others, and how do you integrate death into living?


As I prepped for the job market this fall, I drafted documents that allowed me to step into the future for a moment: things like syllabi and research plans. Academia can feel very all-encompassing, and prepping job market materials allowed me to step back and reflect.

As I wrote my research agenda, I reflected on what brought me here in the first place: my mom. My mom was the one who told me that I needed to go to graduate school. My mom was the one who emphatically said “yes!” when I asked if I should apply for a teaching assistantship. My mom was inadvertently the one who got me interested in teaching. When she died, I read pages and pages of emails that she had printed from students when her contract wasn’t renewed (my mom was a contingent faculty member) about how she had inspired them, about how she had helped them academically and personally.

In some ways, my mom has influenced my research. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I came to the topic of overcoming through cancer discourses, which is a thread that—though I considered it—fell out of my overall dissertation project. But as I wrote a research agenda and thought about the work I want to do, I came back to cancer and the cultural narratives of overcoming. I started thinking about what it would mean to interrogate normality and medical model assumptions about disability, bodies, and the narratives we write about them. Jay Dolmage and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson (2010) note that feminist disability studies methodologies can help us “investigate the history of bodily norms in order to unmask the powers and processes of ‘norming’ and the construction of ‘normality’” (25).

I’m interested in the norming of women’s bodies, particularly through the narratives of femininity and desirability that circulate around breast cancer, prenatal testing, and reproductive rights. There are interesting connections here between disability studies and women & gender studies, tensions between lived experience and the dis/embodied role that technologies play in these different processes.

Reading The Cancer Journals, this work suddenly clicked for me—particularly in Lorde’s discussion of prostheses.

I looked strange and uneven and peculiar to myself, but somehow, ever so much more myself, and therefore so much more acceptable, than I looked with that thing stuck inside my clothes. For not even the most skillful prosthesis in the world could undo that reality, or feel the way my breast had felt, and either I would love my body one-breasted now, or remain forever alien to myself. (44)

When I was younger, I would creep into my mom’s room, reach into her top dresser drawer, and pull out her prosthetic breast. It was odd—pale pink, squishy, with a hint of nipple. I used to slip it into my shirt and stare at the uneven reflection in the mirror. When my great aunt died, we got her prosthetic breast in the mail, and I remember wondering if I would have one some day, too.

There is nothing wrong, per se, with the use of prostheses if they can be chosen freely, for whatever reason, after a woman has had a chance to accept her new body. But usually prostheses serve a real function, to approximate the performance of a missing physical part. In other amputations and with other prosthetic devices, function is the main point of their existence. … Only false breasts are designed for appearance only, as if the only real function of women’s breasts were to appear in a certain shape and size and symmetry to onlookers, or to yield to external pressure. (65)

In many ways, prosthetic breasts act as normalizing technologies designed to police a desirable, feminine form. As Lorde notes, they’re different than other prosthetics because they lack “function,” which is interesting because in what ways do other prosthetics function as normalizing technologies?

To imply to a woman that yes, she can be the ‘same’ as before surgery, with the skillful application of a little puff of lambswool and/or silicone gel, is to place an emphasis upon prosthesis which encourages her not to deal with herself as physically and emotionally real, even though altered and traumatized. (58)

How do prosthetic breasts (or for that matter, reconstructive surgeries) reinscribe rhetorics of overcoming and shape discourses about desirable, feminine bodies? What are the social and political implications (and the real, material health consequences) of choosing or rejecting the prosthesis, of choosing or rejecting the technologies available to detect/treat cancer? What does it say about our society that we value women’s breasts over the health of women themselves?


Every woman has a militant responsibility to involve herself actively with her own health. We owe ourselves the protection of all the information we can acquire about the treatment of cancer and its causes, as well as about the recent findings concerning immunology, nutrition, environment, and stress. And we owe ourselves this information before we may have a reason to use it. (75)

When I was a teenager, I accompanied my mom to a mammogram, and they talked me through the process. When I was 18 or 19, my mom’s doctor asked me if I wanted to have kids and then recommended a total hysterectomy if I didn’t (which perhaps unsurprisingly has shaped the way I understand the production value of my body). Every time I go to the doctor, I am sternly lectured when asked if I’m doing self-exams yet. And then I am told, repeatedly, almost angrily, that if they find anything unusual, they’re immediately referring me elsewhere—as if I am being irresponsible by trusting my general physician.

These moments are worth acknowledging. They’re important for me to analyze for myself, to evaluate the information I receive from doctors and to seek out my own, weighing the information and making choices about my body. But they’re also important more systemically. Breast cancer is an enterprise—1 in 8 U.S. women are diagnosed with it, billions of dollars are raised to research it. It affects women (and men) of all race, class, age, sexual identity, and yet it gets positioned as an individual issue, as something that happens because you weren’t [proactive] or [happy] or [strong] enough. These are narratives that multi-million dollar companies write and circulate and that we write upon our own bodies, and those narratives are worth questioning. Our bodies and the narratives written upon them are worth questioning.

I’m not the resolution type, but maybe 2015 will be the year I accept the militant responsibility to my own body—as a woman, as a teacher, as a maker.


Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1997. Print.

3 thoughts on “The Cancer Journals

  1. Alison, this is so beautiful. It speaks to me on about a million levels, most importantly (for me) the level of having lost my aunt, my mom’s sister, to cancer, and having my mom still be alive, several years after diagnoses of metastatic breast cancer and lung cancer. My aunt Holly and my mom have shaped me in every way. I knit because of them, and read/see everything that has to do with cancer (Lorde, and the film Please Give, and disability-studies analyses, and on and on) with their presence in my mind’s eye. I can’t thank you enough for this account.

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