International Women’s Day & Breast Cancer

I initially posted some of this on Instagram but I think it fits in my research too. Weathering is definitely a useful verb for representing the experience of cancer treatment.

My #internationalwomensday feels complex. I just had a breast reconstruction after treatment for early stage #breastcancer last year. This is the view from my bed. I can’t yet tell if the recon was for me or the world (or both?). I am also learning about how breasts are especially susceptible to absorbing toxins and carcinogens; these icons of life, mother, earth are also indexes of *her* crisis. Which makes my mostly female disease, in my magnificent body, a reference for that too. But I’m also reading @eileen.myles right now and wearing (the) pants and thinking about how to embody the world differently in cancer’s wake, following the leads of @autumnfarmpastured, @vicbond and @ihartericka … My question for today: how can I be a feminist environmentalist with fake boobs?

Instagram didn’t offer any answers, but friendly comments suggested I might find a way forward.

Audre Lorde was quick to decide that a breast reconstruction masked the politics of her illness. She had a single mastectomy with no reconstruction, arguably the most visible of all breast cancer surgeries because of the extremely asymmetrical result. 

The third section of the The Cancer Journals, “power versus prosthesis”, explores and politicises Lorde’s shocking experiences when she chose to go without a reconstruction or prosthesis. She discusses how widely unacceptable the practice was and theorises the politics. 

As a feminist and environmentalist who has recently undergone reconstructive surgery the following stood out as something I need to think through: 

Last week I read in a letter from a doctor in a medical magazine which said no truly happy person ever gets cancer … It’s easier to demand happiness than to clean up the environment. The acceptance of illusion and appearance as reality is another symptom of this same refusal to examine the realities of our own lives. Let us seek “joy” rather than real food and clean air and a danger future on a livable earth! As if happiness alone can protect us from the results of profit-madness!

This snippet does not adequately capture all the contours of her argument, and because I’m writing on my phone I can’t be bothered explicating in full. But the gist is that the prosthesis is widely understood as the pathway to a dubious form of happiness and social stability to which the doctor refers, the absence of it leads to Lorde’s direct and spectacular interrogation of it. It seems that the visibility of the absence of the prosthesis brings out a suite of wretched cultural assumptions about cancer and those with the disease.

In opting for a reconstruction I’m not exposing myself in the same way. I’m an accomplice to the cover up. But I do wonder to what extent I can still explore these same questions – that definitely endure today – without having my own body as the vehicle. Or perhaps my useless prostheses will yield different or complementary questions. What supply chain are my implants at the end of? What cow’s heart supports their weight? What is this muddle I find myself in?

… To be continued


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