Call to War: The Cancer Journals

Phillis h. Rambsy is an attorney and educator. In addition to her work in the fields of law and education, Phillis also studies, writes, and speaks about theological issues as well as issues concerning health and wellness. Phillis is powerfully committed to encouraging individuals to attain lives that are spiritually, physically, and mentally healthy.

As summer takes its bow and September drifts into October, the color that will engulf the lives of many of us will be pink. No, it will not be the sight of pink leaves falling from trees that catch our attention, but instead it is the seemingly ubiquitous pink of some very powerful ribbons. In fact, October is bursting with pink—mainly pink ribbons that stand as both stark reminders and as an acknowledgment of a giant bully—breast cancer—that lurks among us. This giant bully instills fear, uncertainty and despair. However, pink October can also stand to remind us that giants do fall, and that silence cannot be the response when the giant bully comes threatening.

Audre Lorde’s powerful work The Cancer Journals stands as a paralyzing scream into the ears of the giant bully of breast cancer. Lorde put out a call for war against this giant bully when she observed that women affected by breast cancer have “a particular voice to be raised in what must become a female outcry against all preventable cancers, as well as against the secret fears that allow those cancers to flourish.” Recognizing that silence is not a viable option in the face of this bully, Lorde surmised that, “Your silence will not protect you.” She also concluded that fear should not be allowed to perpetuate silence because, “while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.” Silence in the face of breast cancer is indeed, another malignancy; and remaining silent means relinquishing power to the giant bully.

Admittedly, Audre Lorde stands in marked contrast with so many women who currently are staring down the bully of breast cancer, and as such there are undoubtedly countless women who are facing the breast cancer bully who will not identify with Lorde’s narrative. Her identity as a Black lesbian feminist permeates The Cancer Journals. Even more, Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978, when knowledge about breast cancer, including concerns about diagnosis and treatment, were markedly different than today. Above all, The Cancer Journals highlights Lorde’s very strong stance against the use of breast prostheses as a replacement for breasts which have been lost to mastectomy. At the time of Lorde’s diagnosis, women who had undergone mastectomies were often given the option of using prostheses which replaced their breasts by being attached to their skin with adhesive or placed inside bras. A form of breast reconstructive surgery was also obviously available during the time that Lorde wrote because Lorde also railed against the procedure of “inserting silicone gel implants under the skin of the chest, usually shortly after a mastectomy and in a separate operation.” However, Lorde did surmise that, “[t]here is nothing wrong, per se, with the use of prostheses if they can be chosen freely, for whatever reason, after a woman has a chance to accept her new body.” But Lorde was firm in her assertion that, “[e]very woman has a right to define her own desires, make her own choices.” Also, Lorde does acknowledge that there are “many reputable makes of cosmetic breast forms which, although outrageously overpriced, can still serve a real function for the woman who is free enough to choose when and why she wears one or not.”

Still, undoubtedly because of dissimilarities in race, sexual orientation, time period of diagnosis and treatment, opinions on breast replacement/reconstruction and other differences, there are some individuals who will believe that their own battle with the bully of cancer in no way coincides with that of Lorde. But, the one who seeks to dominate—the bully of breast cancer—does not care too much about differences among those affected by its wrath. Yet, Lorde warned that we should not remain hidden behind the “mockeries of separations.” If differences are allowed to dictate silence, Lorde warns that we “rob ourselves of ourselves and each other.”

By referring to women with breast cancer as “warriors” Audre Lorde obviously recognized the seriousness of the fight with the giant bully. For the “warriors” facing the battle with the giant bully of cancer, silence has no place in their arsenals. Fortunately The Cancer Journals is just one of many ways in which a warrior refused to remain silent. But each warrior undoubtedly has a unique and particular battle with the beast, and those stories need to be told. There will be the warrior who was diagnosed with cancer in her twenties—years before medical advice even indicates that she should actually have a mammogram. There will also be the warrior, who did not have her first mammogram until her early fifties and, in fact, had not even had a regular medical appointment for over fifteen years. There will be the warrior who is actually a physician herself and whose breast cancer diagnosis would come within two years of her being a newlywed. Then there will be the daughters of the warriors who upon irritating pains, change in breast appearance or first irregular or unreadable mammogram, immediately wonder if they too must now also face the boastful bully of breast cancer.

No matter what the particular situation, the voices of the warriors must be told. True, not every warrior will produce a work such as The Cancer Journals. But these warriors are among us in our churches, classrooms, neighborhoods, offices, and boardrooms. These warriors all have something to share. Audre Lorde pointed out that, “silence and invisibility go hand in hand with powerlessness.” If warriors are to beat back the beast, they must possess power! Of course, this stance which supports warriors speaking out about their breast cancer experiences does not suggest that those who give voice to their struggle with the beast of breast cancer will never die from the disease. Breast cancer has and will continue to take the lives of many women—Audre Lorde’s death was caused by breast cancer. But, because these many battles with the beast of breast cancer are not zero-sum games, even death does not mean that the bully of breast cancer wins! Audre Lorde encouraged us to “learn to count the living with the same particular attention which we number the dead.”

By speaking, writing, praying publically and/or simply being visible about their battles with the beast, warriors demand to be counted among the living, while also giving an irreplaceable legacy. They push the beast out of the shadows and into the spotlight. It is a spotlight in which others can join in the fight. The beast of breast cancer has a devious way of isolating warriors when they most need the community of others. In the midst of all her details about her own battle, the one thing that Audre Lorde makes clear is that she had a community of soldiers who were instrumental in aiding her in her battle against the bully. This community included her lover, her children, friends, and even other warriors fighting their own battles with the beast. Communities such as the ones which engulfed Lorde in love and support led her to conclude that, “without community there is certainly no liberation, no future, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between me and my oppression.”

Audre Lorde was but one voice battling the bullying beast. And yet there still remain so many warriors with voices who possess their own particular and personal narrative which allow them to take up arms against this beast of breast cancer. These voices of warriors provide the most valuable artillery in the fight against the beast of breast cancer. The voices of the warriors also provide a rallying cry of recruitment for the community of soldiers who will also be instrumental in the fights with the beast. Above all, when the voices of the warriors are heard, the silence and invisibility that so often rides on the back of the bully, disappears.

For all warriors who have rallied against the beast by standing firm, staying faithful and staring down the bully of breast cancer, and especially for these special warriors: Dr. Joan Callahan, Jennifer Crossen, Dr. Regina Flippin, Eboni Heron….and of course, my own personal warrior…. my mother Phillis Tean Hegmon Rambsy.

3 thoughts on “Call to War: The Cancer Journals

  1. As a fellow lawyer and one who knows silence, I pray we overcome cancer. Someday, death from disease will be rare and we will return to God after old age.

    The cure begins when our expression of love is louder than the silence that separates us.


  2. This is a powerful powerful blog. If we can pay attention to all the Reality TV noise…the political ramblings of our time…the "he said she said", then SURELY we can pay attention to a blog like this that calls our attention to what matters most.
    Great read. Thanks Phillis.

  3. There can be no C_RE without U. Continue to support breast cancer and survivors. It is important that we teach women to be proactive in their healthcare and to teach our daughters the importance of self breast exams at an earlier age. As a Survivor I refuse to be silent.

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