The Cancer Journals, Audre Lorde’s documentation and critique of her experience with breast cancer, is a painstaking examination of the journey Lorde takes to integrate this crisis into her identity. The book chronicles Lorde’s anger, pain, and fear about cancer and is as frank in its themes of “the travesty of prosthesis, the pain of amputation, and the function of cancer in a profit society,” as it is unflinching in its treatment of Lorde’s confrontation with mortality.
Lorde speaks on her identity as a black, lesbian, feminist mother and poet with breast cancer. She illuminates the implications the disease has for her, recording the process of waking up in the recovery room after the biopsy that confirms her cancer, colder than she has ever been in her life. The following days, she prepares for the radical mastectomy through consultation with women friends, family, her lover, and her children. In the days that follow, Lorde attributes part of her healing process to “a ring of women like warm bubbles keeping me afloat” as she recovers from her mastectomy. She realizes that after facing death and having lived, she must accept the reality of dying as “a life process”; this hard-won realization baptizes Lorde into a new life.
The journal entries for 1979 and 1980, written while Lorde recovered from the radical mastectomy she chose to forestall spread of the disease, show Lorde’s integration of this emergency into her life. She realizes that she must give the process a voice; she wants to be more than one of the “socially sanctioned prosthesis” women with breast cancer, who remain quiet and isolated. Instead, Lorde vows to teach, speak, and fight.
At the journal’s end, Lorde chooses to turn down the prosthesis offered her, which she equates with an empty way to forestall a woman’s acceptance of her new body, and thus, her new identity. If, Lorde realizes, a woman claims her full identity as a cancer survivor and then opts to use a prosthesis, she has made the journey toward claiming her altered body, and life. Postmastectomy women, however, have to find their own internal sense of power. The Cancer Journals demonstrates a black, feminist, lesbian poet’s integration of cancer into her identity.