In this episode, guest contributors Els Woudstra and Dr. Travis Alexander explore and discuss the life of Audre Lorde, a self-described "Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet." Our guest hosts explore Lorde's breast cancer diagnosis and her activism in the 1980s. Their critical discussion reveals a raw, self-contained, and influential story that continues to challenge the martial narratives ascribed to cancer today.
ELS WOUDSTRA: I'm Els Woudstra.
TRAVIS ALEXANDER: And I'm Travis Alexander.
ES: So Travis, I know you're into media and film theory, right?
TA: I am!
ES: I would like to show you something.
TA: Cool. What do you have for me?
ES: It's this commercial for MD Anderson.
What did you take? He took my hair, you took my husband, my grandmother, my dad...
TA: You know, it's interesting. The commercial cuts between a number of individuals all looking directly into the camera as they list what cancers taken from them, the first half of the commercial seems to be narrated by patients and family. But then when the commercial goes into the offensive, all the speakers were clearly doctors.
... with immune cells, genetic testing, clinical trials, and cutting edge research.
TA: And then at the end of the commercial, it promises,
...and cancer, you're going to lose, and we are going to win.
TA: So for me the message is that the patient emerges as the winner in this fight against cancer. But this seems to introduce a tricky metaphor, doesn't it? What if the patient passes away? Would that make them the loser and cancer the winner?
I think the ways we talk about cancer seem to use these kinds of martial metaphors. At the end of the day, though, the war really happens within the patient themselves and they have to be brave and strong to fight this war. There isn't much room for the patient's personal experience in a story where expectations are laid out, and the victory is already written.
ES: Right. I think that's actually spot on because I keep thinking about Audrey Lorde. In this context, she instead tells herself and tells others that what you can do when you get a diagnosis like breast cancer like she got in the early 1980s. Instead of becoming this, you know, soldier in the war against cancer, you can actually turn to yourself and take care of your own body and that becomes your main responsibility.
AUDRE LORDE: The surgery was completed, and it was benign. But within those three weeks, I'm supposed to look upon myself and my living with a heart urgent clarity that has left me even now still shaken, but much stronger.
ES: Audre Lorde, describes herself as a black feminist lesbian mother, warrior and poet, she had felt a lump in her breast and had gotten a biopsy and fortunately, she did not have cancer. But about a year later, she felt another lump. And this time the tumor was malignant. And she writes about this, in her book, the cancer diaries about her diagnosis with breast cancer in the early 1980s. And her experience undergoing a modified Radical Mastectomy after they found the second lump in her breast.
TA: So is that kind of treatment actually common in the 80s.
ES: You mean a mastectomy?
TA: Exactly the kind of radical one you're describing.
ES: Kind of. So until approximately the 1970s. The main course of treatment for breast cancer was a radical mastectomy, not the the one that Audrey Lorde had, but basically an even more radical one where the breast all the surrounding lymph nodes and the pectoral muscle were removed. So that, as you can imagine, is a really intense surgery. And it can cause all sorts of problems for women afterwards, like lymphedema because of the lymph node removal weakness because of the loss of muscles, etc.
TA: So what, what changed them?
ES: Mainly the women's movement of the 1970s, the women's movement had a huge health component, which really encouraged women to take agency in their own health care. You know, they've been talking to other women who'd had this radical mastectomy, and had all these had run into all these problems. So women started doing their own research started pressuring doctors to come up with different treatments. So they would have a less radical mastectomy, then the complete removal of all these muscles, etc. And then on top of that, in the late 1970s, and early 1980s, we got chemotherapy, and that turned out to be a really promising option for managing breast cancer. So when Audrey Lorde was diagnosed, she had treatment options that were basically vastly better than even 10 years earlier, and very much a product of her time.
TA: So when you say she talked to other women or was part of a community of women examining treatment options, is that how you think she arrived at the decision to proceed as she did rather than to embrace the earlier era's kind of extreme intervention?
ES: Definitely, she describes this extensively actually in the cancer diaries. She took her time to carefully weigh her options, as you're already saying she was part of this huge network of women in New York. So basically, as soon as she received her diagnosis, this network sprung into action. She was able to talk to these women who had had mastectomies. She had women who could help her understand the latest research. She had women who actually would offer her alternative treatment methods.
TA: You mentioned that she did elect to get chemo. I wonder, can you just talk a little bit about like, how she related to that treatment? Was it rough for her? In what way did did it feel like a personal choice for her in a way that the mastectomy wouldn't have or didn't?
ES: Actually, her doctor wanted her to have chemo and she refused. She was very, very skeptical of treatments, like chemotherapy that in themselves could cause cancer and she really didn't want to go and just follow her doctor's directions without investigating herself without thinking herself. And she spent a lot of time ruminating on her condition and on the changes that her body was going through, especially for this mastectomy, she meditated on the Amazons of Dahomey . These 15-year-old girls, you may have heard about them. They're pretty famous in Greek mythology, who, according to legend, had one breasts removed to improve their archery. They were these, you know, mythical warriors, who at such a young age had gotten this major major surgery.
TA: So I'm actually way behind on my Greek mythology. So you'll you'll have to remind me what, what kind of connection does she see between herself and these Amazons?
ES: Well, like the Amazons Audrey Lorde, describes herself as a warrior. I mean, obviously, she's not going out there on horseback fighting, but she sees herself as this warrior and her sisters in arms are the many women who have undergone mastectomies and this large network of women that came to her aid when she was diagnosed. So these sisters are these fellow warriors. I think they're very unlike the soldiers that you would have in an army as perhaps MD Anderson's commercial would have it, you can see them as a network without a hierarchy. And their biggest fight is not against cancer, but for women to develop and live in their own sense of power.
TA: Yeah, that's such an interesting revision of what I think of is the conventional rhetoric around cancer. Is it right to say that for Lorde cancer is more like a symptom, like a symptom of larger social and justices? In a way, if there's a war going on at all? And I'm not even sure Lorde would call it that. It's not then necessarily just against the cancerous cells, but the system that caused her body to grow these cells in the first place. Right?
ES: Right. So while Lorde sees herself as a warrior, her response to her cancer is actually anything but aggressive.
TA: Yeah, I mean, from what you're saying, I can't help contrast Lorde to someone who she's probably very infrequently put in dialogue with, and yet someone who was historically active at exactly the same period as her, that being Ronald Reagan. I remember when I read a famous biography of Reagan at a point I was really struck by a scene where allegedly after undergoing surgery for cancerous colon polyps, a reporter asks Reagan how he feels to have beaten cancer. And Reagan really bizarrely replies to this guy that he never even did have cancer, he only had something inside him that had cancer and that that thing had been removed. So it's like he sees his self as a bounded impervious entity. The cancer is removable polyps then are just not part of that impenetrable self. By contrast, Lorde, as you describe her accepts the fact that her body has the capacity to grow cancerous cells, right? It has the power, indeed the right to misfire in that way. And that's a capacity that can be triggered by the environments human bodies are subject to.
ES: It's like she has this understanding with her body and she's finding a way to care for her body. Despite the pain it's causing her and you know, despite the fear and anxiety that she's feeling because of what it's been growing, and she's so generous towards her own reactions of fear and pain as well for her if there's anything foreign inside her, it is actually fear.
ES: Travis, could you read this quote out loud?
TA: Sure. So Lorde writes,
Sometimes fear stalks me like another malignancy sapping energy and power and attention from my work. A cold becomes sinister, a cough, lung cancer, a bruise leukemia. Those fears are most powerful when they are not given voice and close upon they're healed comes the fury that I cannot shake them. When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less important whether or not I am unafraid.
ES: Here, she does not write herself as the soldier ready to defend her body against the invasion of cancer. Or rather, she's someone who accepts the threat as part of her body and response to her fear as basically a source of power. It was never a fight against cancer for Lorde, but rather this struggle against this silencing, that is pushed upon women with mastectomies. I mean, especially in her time, women were really still expected to be quiet about any sort of breast cancer surgeries they may have had. It was really covered with a lot of shame and a lot of stigma.
TA: Yeah, so I mean, I'm especially fascinated by the linkage that may exist between what Lorde is theorizing and what's received kind of a more academic treatment in what gets called disability studies or disability theory, which at least a few years ago, was particularly interest in the kind of poetry of scars and thinking of the scar as a kind of material memory to go back to Reagan that marks precisely the body's ability to be inhabited or to be cut into, and that that scar lives with you forever, and joins inside and outside. So that's that's kind of what I find most provocative about, in particular, her thinking about the scar.
ES: Right. I think undergoing cancer treatment tends to be understood in terms of bravery. But to me, what Lorde's narrative makes clear is that depicting the cancer patient as a hero is basically as psychologically detrimental, as the shame that breast cancer patients in her day experience on top of, of course, these invasive physical changes in the body. And I'm also thinking, since we mentioned earlier that race and gender are so central to Lourdes identity, how those factors would be embedded in her views of cancer.
TA: I think they have to be the position of vulnerability produced by Lorde's cancer diagnosis is definitely consistent with the history of black femininity, at least in the American context, where black femininity exists underneath both patriarchy and white supremacy. In her writings, at least to me, Lorde seems to apprehend her cancer as a kind of external emblem or symbol for the condition of black womanhood itself.
TA: In fact, according to black feminist scholars, like Hortense Spillers, the black woman is actually invisible in American culture. So in a way, I can't help wondering if Lorde understands her cancer, as a weird kind of illuminating presence, a way to mark the existence of a black femininity that so often goes unseen.
ES: Yeah, I think you're spot on. For Lorde cancer is not just a disease that affects individuals, but it's a symptom of these inequalities and injustices under capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy, as you mentioned. So basically, the system in itself is carcinogenic, and as Lorde notes, we cannot help breathing in smokers, cigarette fumes, auto exhaust, and airborne chemical dust. Basically, we're constantly exposed. This environmental burden is often placed on communities of color.
TA: Totally. I mean, just look at our own city of Houston. Here we've historically redlined populations of color into neighborhoods and districts that are directly near sites of industrial manufacturer. It's a pattern equally experienced in other US urban regions. And the consequences, as far as I can tell are always similar. These populations suffer higher levels of toxicity and chronic disease.
ES: Right, and all of this invisible suffering, as you're suggesting, are actually eliminated on Lorde's own body. In Lorde's words, she casts her mastectomy scars as an honorable reminder that she may be a casualty in the cosmic war against radiation, animal fat, air pollution, McDonald's hamburgers, and red dye number two.
TA: Exactly. Her scars seem to carry the trace of medical and environmental damage borne by her body in general.
TA: They also seem to prove her body's capacity to heal.
ES: Yeah, definitely. She refuses to wear prosthesis even when she is scolded by her doctors and nurses and she sharply criticizes the use of silicone breast implants for reconstructive surgeries, which again may in themselves cause cancer. What she calls an honest acquaintanceship with her body is actually what helped her find this lump in her breasts in the first place. And it's this acquaintanceship that she is determined to rebuild after her surgery without molding her body into a familiar silhouette for the comfort of others.
She doesn't want to look like she has two breasts because she doesn't. She wants to be comfortable in a one breasted body. So, Lorde's fight is not against her own body rather it is for her body and this, I think, can be summed up by one of my favorite Audre Lorde quotes.
"Caring for myself is not self indulgence. It is self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare."
Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco, Calif: Aunt Lute Books, 1990.
Lorde, Audre. Undersong: Chosen Poems, Old and New. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.