46 pages 1 hour read

Audre Lorde

The Cancer Journals

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1980

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Audre Lorde was a poet, essayist, activist, and memoirist whose writings on lesbian feminism and race were integral to second-wave feminism. Lorde was born in New York City on February 18, 1934 to Grenadian immigrant parents. She attended Hunter High School, where she edited the school’s literary magazine. She published her first poem, which had been rejected by an English teacher, in Seventeen magazine. She later attended Hunter College, where she trained to become a librarian.

Born Audrey Geraldine Lorde, she dropped the “y” from her name during childhood. Lorde married Edwin Rollins, a white gay man, in 1962, one year after earning her master’s degree in library science. Together, they had two children, before divorcing in 1970. Lorde worked as a librarian at Town School in Manhattan. She wrote poetry around the same time and taught English at Hunter College. She released her first poetry collection, The First Cities, in 1968. This was followed by 11 additional volumes, including her most notable works, Coal (1976) and The Black Unicorn (1978). She also wrote five prose collections, including The Cancer Journals, which won the 1982 Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award. Another collection, A Burst of Light (1988), was nominated for a National Book Award.

During her lifetime, Lorde received honorary doctorates from Haverford, Hunter, and Oberlin colleges. She was also honored with the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit in 1991 and received an award from the American Library Association a decade earlier. Near the end of her life, Lorde took the name “Gamba Adisa,” meaning “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known.” Lorde died at her home in St. Croix on November 17, 1992, after a 14-year battle with cancer. Her final poetry collection, The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance: Poems: 1987-1992, was published posthumously in 1993.

Summary

The Cancer Journals, a memoir, was published in 1980 and re-released in 1997. Between late 1978 and early 1979, Lorde contemplated and chronicled her experience of living with breast cancer and coping with her self-image after a mastectomy. The Cancer Journals, written 18 months after her mastectomy, is a call to women, particularly those who have survived breast cancer, to examine the illness’s meaning in their lives. She seeks to understand and share what the illness can teach women about their purpose and about what it means to be a woman.

Lorde introduces the book, which combines journal entries, a speech, and essays, by describing the various ways in which women respond to a diagnosis of breast cancer. Many pretend as though their lives have not been disrupted and carry an air of normalcy. By contrast, Lorde articulates her experience of major personal change.

Lorde describes having had two biopsies within a year which revealed a malignant tumor. Lorde makes the decision to have a mastectomy, which comes as a relief to her partner, Frances. However, the prospect of losing her breast frightens Lorde’s daughter, Beth. Lorde depicts her experiences with an often-indifferent healthcare system, both before and after her mastectomy, which contrasts with the warmth and love she receives from her partner and her close circle of female friends.

Lorde expresses her lingering fears about developing new cancer cells. She feels compelled to make the best use of her time, which means writing and saying what she needs to and loving whom she wants to love. She also contemplates the environmental and nutritional causes of cancer. Lorde accuses mainstream cancer organizations, particularly the American Cancer Society, of overlooking the ways in which our air, food, and water may be poisoning us. She takes major cancer organizations to task for focusing more on treatments, usually in the form of chemotherapy, over prevention.

Lorde also expresses outrage over the expectation from both society and the healthcare industry that women who have had mastectomies should wear prostheses, believing that women are unfairly pressured to focus on their physical appearance. This distraction diminishes their ability to use their experiences to connect to other women who have also endured breast cancer and mastectomy. Lorde believes that the emphasis on breast cancer as an aesthetic problem for women robs them of the opportunity for self-transformation, while also operating to maintain an oppressive and sexist status quo. The purpose of The Cancer Journals is to encourage women to rethink the role of breast cancer in their lives and to find meaning in their experience.

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