Bringing Consciousness to the Breast Cancer Process: Reflecting on Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals

On April 16, 2012, a month before my radical right breast mastectomy and TRAM flap reconstruction, I wrote in my new journal:  Spent a long time looking at life reflected in a shiny car bumper. Space and distance distorted in its reflection. H. and I showered together this morning in the dark. I wrapped her back up & put her back in bed. At the time, my entries were fleeting reflections, notes from books, and snippets of lists and fears. H. was three, and my other child was six.

Audre Lorde published The Cancer Journals—a collection of journal entries, reflections on what it means to be a woman with one breast, and a cultural critique of breast cancer and its industry—in 1980, after her first diagnosis of breast cancer. Notably, The Cancer Journals is one of the most important illness narratives written. In 2020, former Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith added a foreword. She writes, “The Cancer Journals is many things. It is a source of comfort and encouragement for those living with the specter of breast cancer. It is also an invitation to compassion, fury, reflection, and action for all of us living in a world ravaged by myriad forms of violence, shot through by so many reminders of mortality” (xii).

The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde

My experience of breast cancer in 2012 and 2019 as a white, heterosexual woman, mother, and poet is/was very different from Audre Lorde’s black lesbian poet woman feminist mother warrior lover experience of breast cancer in 1978, liver cancer in 1984, ovarian cancer in 1987, and eventual death in 1992. And yet, we share an experience with breast cancer, a right breast amputation (Lorde’s word), and a sense that “…my work is part of a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and our power, and knowing that this work did not begin with my birth nor will it end with my death” (10).

I have learned from Lorde’s powerful words and voice, so I’ve selected quotes from The Cancer Journals that stood out to me as important, relevant, and worthy of deeper exploration. Under each quote, I ask a series of questions that the quote elicited for me. My hope is that Audre Lorde’s words speak for themselves and offer you a way to ask your own questions, perhaps bringing a deeper consciousness to your own breast cancer process.

 “Each woman responds to the crisis that breast cancer brings to her life out of a whole pattern, which is the design of who she is and how her life has been lived. The weave of her every day existence is the training ground for how she handles crisis. Some women obscure their painful feelings surrounding mastectomy with a blanket of business-as-usual, thus keeping those feelings forever under cover, but expressed elsewhere. For some women, in a valiant effort not to be seen as merely victims, this means an insistence that no such feelings exist and that nothing much has occurred. For some women, it means the warrior’s painstaking examination of yet another weapon, unwanted but useful” (Introduction, 1).

How have I responded to my breast cancer diagnosis? I want to be the “warrior,” but for so long, I was covered with the “blanket of business as usual.” Are you one of the women Lorde describes or would you define yourself differently? What was “the weave of your every existence” like before my breast cancer diagnosis and what is it like now after my breast cancer diagnosis? What feelings/understandings have I brought with me from before? And what feelings/understandings have I let go of? What would I like to tell my before-diagnosis self?

 “Living a self-conscious life, under the pressure of time, I work with the consciousness of death at my shoulder, not constantly, but often enough to leave a mark upon all of my life’s decisions and actions. And it does not matter whether death comes next week or thirty years from now; this consciousness gives my life another breadth. It helps shape the words I speak, the ways I love, my politic of action, the strength of my vision and purpose, the depth of my appreciation of living” (“Introduction,” 9).

How do I live consciously? For Lorde, it is with death at her shoulder. I have often felt that death “shapes” me. Is that the same for you? What gives your life “another breadth”?

“In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary for each one of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation, and to recognize her role as vital within that transformation” (“The Transformation of Silence…” 15).

What is my role in collective action? How do I recognize, honor, and share my gifts with others in your family? Society? Breast cancer community?

“Breast cancer, with its mortal awareness and the amputation which it entails, can still be a gateway, however cruelly won, into the tapping and expansion of my own power and knowing. We must learn to count the living with the same particular attention to which we number the dead” (“Breast Cancer: A Black Lesbian Feminist Experience,” 46).

What amputation has happened in my life because of breast cancer? Would I even use that word or would I use another word to describe my experience? I love the idea of paying attention to the living. How does that show up in your life?  

“Self scrutiny and an evaluation of our lives, while painful, can be rewarding and strengthening journeys toward a deeper self. For as we open ourselves more and more to the genuine conditions of our lives, women become less and less willing to tolerate those conditions unaltered, or to passively accept external and destructive controls over our lives and our identities” (“Breast Cancer: Power vs. Prosthesis,” 50-51).

Is this true for me? If so, how? If not, why? Some rally against the idea that suffering is meant to be a teacher. What is the “genuine condition” of my life? How does this recognition invite me to share myself? Share my resources?

“The only really happy people I have ever met are those of us who work against those deaths with all the energy of our living, recognizing the deep and fundamental unhappiness with which we are surrounded, at the same time as we fight to keep from being submerged by it” (“Breast Cancer: Power vs. Prosthesis,” 67).

What does happiness look like in my life? How do I balance the energy of suffering with the energy of not being consumed by it?

I have asked these questions of myself, so I can understand and honor my breast cancer experience. And I continue to explore how my own race, class, and sexual preference influence how I am treated and seen within the breast cancer continuum and how others are not seen or heard. I would love to hear from you! If you’re feeling moved or inspired, I welcome your thoughts and feelings. If you have a breast cancer story and would like to share it, I encourage you to do so. Perhaps, you have questions. Take some time to share them here.

2 responses to “Bringing Consciousness to the Breast Cancer Process: Reflecting on Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals”

  1. Thank you for sharing the brilliant words of Audre Lorde and asking others to join you in the journey of self-reflection and expression.

    I tend to use “the blanket of business as usual” to cover the bumpy stretches of life and smooth the craggy, sharp edges into a landscape that appears, at least in hindsight, as a more subtle irregularity than an area of raw, harsh struggle. To put it simply, it isn’t always the most self-connected journey. In many ways, I have applied this instinctive approach to my cancer journey as well. In the seemingly endless weeks between choosing my treatment plan and having a mastectomy, I went about my daily routines with as little deviation as possible. I felt simultaneously very impatient to have the cancer removed and also desperate to somehow retain my body as I had always known and experienced it. I did not discuss it with others, aside from my partner; I just thought about it quietly and could not sleep. My therapist encouraged me to grieve the imminent loss, and yet I had no idea how. Finally, in the days leading up to the surgery, I had photographs taken of my body as it was, to somehow try to capture the physical self I had always known and calm the frantic sense I had that it was going to be discarded and forgotten. I took baths to more fully appreciate the comfort and complete sensation I had in my body before it was only a memory. And I wrote a poem to my breasts as a way to honor them for their sacrifice and memorialize them. Since the surgery, I have periodically written letters to my breasts, as I have struggled with the physical changes and emotional recovery. I am still hesitant to share my journey with others, fearing that those who have not had cancer will not be interested, and that those who have had cancer may find my experience somehow invalidating if theirs has been different. But I pause every so often to peel back the blanket and dip into the complicated feelings underneath.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shira, thank you for your honesty, wisdom, and bravery. I deeply appreciate your willingness to “peel back the blanket” and to share with us about your breast cancer process. I, too, wrestled with the both/and of understanding my particular cancer’s pathology, being in my body, and having the surgery to remove cancer and my breast. It’s so complicated, so I love the idea of writing a poem to your breasts and periodically writing them letters. Letters can be a tender and loving way to address grief and loss. I know I will continue to ask myself these difficult questions and “dip into the complicated feelings underneath.” Thank you for showing me the way.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: