Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals

Excerpt from Pink Ribbon Blues

“I am a post-mastectomy woman who believes our feelings need voice in order to be recognized, respected, and of use.” — Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

Audre Lorde, African American poet, essayist, autobiographer, novelist, and nonfiction writer, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978. Six months after her modified radical mastectomy, she began writing journal entries about her experiences with breast cancer. Lorde published an account of her illness in The Cancer Journals in 1980, which included excerpts from her journal entries. & Lorde’s writing called for cancer survivors to support one another and speak out about American culture’s push to render invisible the devastating impacts of breast cancer on women’s bodies, lives, and voices.

In a similar vein as Rose Kushner’s work, which sought to question medical practice and break the silence that still surrounded breast cancer, Lorde’s ability to raise issues that help to initiate social change has had a lasting impact on cancer survivorship. The Cancer Journals, republished in 1995 and 2006, continues to serve as a prophetic message for numerous cancer survivors and community-based organizations.

In the first chapter of The Cancer Journals, “the transformation of silence into language and action,” Lorde emphasizes the importance of illness narratives. Putting what she feels into words enables the ill person to reflect on her experience, examine it, put it into a perspective, share it, and make use of it. Lorde argues forcefully that communicating our experiences not only benefits the speaker on a personal level, but also gives voice to realities that will cause harm if left unattended. She writes:

“I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you…while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

For Lorde, it is the truthful telling of all kinds of stories that matters, not only those accepted in the broader culture. Her goal is not to construct a singular Truth, such as the story of the triumphant survivor, but to create opportunities for women to seek out and examine a diversity of stories and consider their relevance to their lives.

Post Script: Many have written about the impact of Audre Lorde, a prophetic writer who continues to inspire and disrupt.

  • Lorde’s poetry places cancer within a continuum of women’s lives and work. In a weaving together of critical analyses of Lorde’s writing, The Cancer Journals speaks to the sources of empowerment: “Rather than ignoring pain and fear, she acknowledged, examined, and used them to better understand mortality as a source of power.”
  • Lorde is featured in “An Army of One-Breasted Women” in the nationally traveling mural Who Holds The Mirror? Breast Cancer, Women’s Lives And The Environment. The mural is used to educate, and inspire action and dialogue about women’s and community health, environmental and social justice.
  • In Being Sarah, Sarah Horton takes Audre Lorde’s messages about truth and action to heart. Though they are unique in many ways, Horton and Lorde share the prophetic message that we must give voice to realities that will cause harm if left unattended.
  • Uneasy Pink faces the challenges of Audre Lorde’s social position as a Black, feminist, lesbian, poet, activist, breast cancer patient. Though the complexities of Lorde’s life reflect a particular historical moment, the roots of inequality continue to shape women’s experiences today.
  • In Daring to Be Powerful, The Accidental Amazon reflects on contemporary breast cancer awareness. “Smothered in pink…Not only our identity as women, but the reality of our disease…muffled by myth, misinformation, and research priorities that still don’t adequately address the twin constants of incidence and mortality.”
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3 comments to Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals

  • Absolutely spot on. I can’t imagine having to go through this without the vastness of the Internet as a boundless communication tool in which I have found amazing support, narratives, dialogue and community. It must have been a very lonely world in Ms Lorde’s time but how profound for her to recognize the importance of the cancer patient’s voice.

  • Thanks for the pingback, Gayle. We need Lorde’s unflinching voice more than ever. I kept thinking when I wrote my post about how the more things change, the more they remain the same.

"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest

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