Critical Narratives

“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.

Thirty years after Audre Lorde first published her cancer journals, Sarah Horton published hers. Though they are unique in many ways, they also share the prophetic message that we must give voice to realities that will cause harm if left unattended.

Across the pages of Being Sarah, Sarah Horton writes:

“We are hiding from the truth…We’re still smiling, us women…We cover it up…We don’t challenge. We accept breast cancer and its treatments. We deal with it, and we deal with it well…Have we blinkered ourselves with pink-tinted glasses here? I am not prepared to join in this collusion of silence.”

What we can learn from these journals, written three decades apart, is that breast cancer has shifted from a stigmatized disease that left women in isolation to one that silences them in a sea of pink.

Fewer women die from the disease now than they did during the dark past. Some treatments are more successful. But the culture is still afraid to speak the whole truth about breast cancer. As incidences rise among men and women, diagnostic technologies fall short, treatments fail, side effects linger, breast cancers recur, the number of deaths each year remain far too stable, and no prevention or cure exists for invasive disease, the image of breast cancer remains undeniably, optimistically joyful. At this point in our history, pink consumption and awareness activities have taken priority over truth telling.

What do we stand to lose if our message, no matter how true it is… is so disheartening? Perhaps we should ask, what do we stand to gain?

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