The Cancer Journals

by Audre Lorde

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

Audre Lorde's account of her fight against breast cancer, The Cancer Journals, also explores her social agenda, including her advocacy for LGBT, feminist, and civil rights. Lorde is the main character of the book, which consists of essays, journal entries, and new writings from her years struggling with cancer in the late seventies.

The Cancer Journals is broken up into three sections, each of which addresses a different aspect of Lorde's life between 1977 and 1979. Lorde was very aware of her place in the world as an "outsider." She was black, a woman, and gay. She spent her time writing poetry and fighting for the rights of underrepresented groups. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she became a part of a group that would become all too common—those fighting a deadly disease.

In part one of the book, Lorde explores how hard it is to talk about her disease. For someone who is used to speaking up against injustices and sharing her vulnerabilities through poetry, discussing her disease was a new hurdle to climb over. Using excerpts from The Black Unicorn, one of her own works, and a speech she gave to the Modern Language Association in late 1977, Lorde addresses how comfortable silence can be and how important it is for her to speak out.

My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.

Part two, entitled "Breast Cancer: A Black Lesbian Feminist Experience," walks the reader through the logistics of Lorde's fight. She discusses her discovery, biopsy, mastectomy, and recovery process in emotional detail. We're introduced to friends and family members who held Lorde's hand through her struggle and offered advice along the way. She discusses how having a support system of women was integral to her recovery, particularly as she decided which surgery to have. Finally, Lorde addresses her decision to forgo reconstructive surgery and live without breasts.

The final section of the book focuses on life after breast cancer. Lorde explains her choice not to wear a prosthesis and how she came to that decision. Notably, Lorde shares that doesn't feel the need to hide her altered body from the world and isn't ashamed of what she went through.

Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of ‘Nobody will know the difference.’ But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it, and wish to share that strength with other women. If we are to translate the silence surrounding breast cancer into language and action against this scourge, then the first step is that women with mastectomies must become visible to each other.

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