The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde
San Francisco: aunt lute books, 1980
The Cancer Journals is a collection of essays by Audre Lorde about her diagnosis with, treatment for and healing from breast cancer and decision to undergo—and physical and emotional recovery from—a mastectomy. It contains and often riffs on excerpts from her personal journal in which she contends with her own fears and mourning, the inhumanity of the medical establishment, the warm support of the women in her life. These are powerful essays, insightful and unflinching and beautiful. Though she does not step back from the pain she undergoes, she speaks clearly about the power and support she finds, the connections to other women she intensifies, and the erotic experience of her own body. I’ve returned to this little book again and again and again throughout my adult life.
But these essays are about more than breast cancer, more than illness and disability. They are about strength, and hope, and feminism, and body politics, and power, and power, and power. Lorde frequently reminds the reader that these words are coming from a black lesbian poet, and this is important, I think—Lorde is positioning herself in the world, calling our attention to where she’s standing as she speaks. By doing so, she’s emphasizing the connection between lived experience, what one thinks about and what one is usually permitted to say.
If you’ve ever read an Audre Lorde quotation, chances are it came from this book. Remember “your silence will not protect you”? This book. If you have the T-shirt, you need to read the book, friends.
You may imagine that a book of essays about struggling with breast cancer would be depressing. This is not. Neither is it falsely uplifting (the expectation of a put-on-a-cheery-smile attitude, Lorde says, is a way of preventing women from knowing themselves and discovering their full power). The tone of the book lies smack in the middle: sometimes strong, sometimes terrified, sometimes mournful, sometimes pragmatic. Extremely human. As a chronically-ill and disabled woman, I’ve heard Lorde’s words in my head numerous times—though I have never confronted breast cancer in my own body, Lorde speaks to my own experiences of illness and disability, and also to my experiences as a queer woman, a feminist, and even a writer.
Right now, reading these essays again (as I do every year or so), I’m finding them extra-chillingly-on-point. In this moment when institutionalized racism seems to be baring its teeth extra viciously at its targets, especially those who speak back to it; when American Black people in particular are endangered by our country’s own institutions, pResident and even some citizens; and when white folks, insisting on their “allyship,” are trying to divert attention to how white allies feel about all of this, Lorde’s words are frighteningly prescient.
“I have found that battling despair does not mean closing my eyes to the enormity of the tasks of effecting change,” she writes, “nor ignoring the strength and the barbarity of the forces aligned against us. It means teaching, surviving and fighting with the most important resource I have, myself, and taking joy in that battle. It means, for me, recognizing the enemy outside and the enemy within, and knowing 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. And it means knowing that within this continuum, my life and my love and my work has particular power and meaning to others.”
She also sees clearly how such a profound threat to her life (she’s specifically talking about cancer, but is also obliquely referencing racism and sexism and homophobia) sap her energy, divert her away from exercising her own power in the world. It follows that those who have an interest in keeping down Black folks, women, queer folks, disabled folks—those whose lives are easier if all of us just sit down and shut up—also have an interest in not finding a cure for breast cancer or other chronic serious illnesses, or enacting safeguards against homophobia, sexism and racism. (And not, I might add, making complete healthcare available to all of us…) I’ve often said that taking care of a debilitating chronic illness (in my case, Multiple Sclerosis and Type I/Juvenile Diabetes) is a full-time job and leaves little energies for other things. Lorde writes:
“I am often afraid to this day, but even moreso angry at having to be afraid, of having to spend so much of my energies, interrupting my work, simply upon fear and worry. […] I resent the time and weakening effect of these concerns—they feel as if they are available now for diversion in much the same way the FBI lies are available for diversion, the purpose being to sway us from our appointed and self-chosen paths of action.”
Imagine how much more productive, creative, brilliant Lorde could have been, how much more powerful, how much more of a threat to the status quo Lorde would have been, had she not had to expend so much energy just to stay alive. One might say the same for all ailing and disabled folks, poor folks, Black folks, LGBTQ folks, POC folks… And by making our lives harder, by not providing enough support and care to such folks, American culture/government is essentially sapping our strength and robbing itself of our contributions and active presence.
I feel this especially strongly during Pride month and in the midst of BLM demonstrations and our own pResident’s threats of violence and “crackdown” on demonstrators and dissenters. In this context, Lorde’s words, written in the 1970s, seem to predict this moment. But, of course, it is more likely true that, though much has changed, little has changed since Lorde wrote these essays. Our government is still under the sway of racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist agendas. Women, LGBTQ+ folks, disabled folks, POC, Black folks… all live with the threat of violence. All deal daily with a lack of fiscal, legal, intellectual and bodily safety and security. All need, desperately need, the brilliant, powerful, brave and true words of this book now more than ever.