The first time I heard of Audre Lorde was on a Facebook page for women who had gone flat or who, like me, were considering going flat after having mastectomies. Posted on the site was one of the poet’s striking quotes: “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.”
Lorde wrote those words in The Cancer Journals, a collection of essays about her breast cancer experience. First published in 1980 and reprinted this past October, the author’s entries still resonate decades later as she confronts her diagnosis and questions the norms and expectations for women facing the disease. Especially powerful are Lorde’s passages about not wearing a prosthesis after her single mastectomy. In one entry, she says a disapproving nurse told her that not wearing her foam padding was bad for “morale” in the breast surgeon’s office.
Lorde’s work comes as many women continue to face social pressure to have reconstruction or wear prostheses. More than 40 years after its initial publication, The Cancer Journals is inspiring new generations of women to deal with breast cancer on their own terms. Lorde’s essays, as Tracy K. Smith writes in her new foreword, serve as a “guide to survival for the twenty-first century body and soul.”
The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde, with a new foreword by Tracy K. Smith. Penguin Classic, October 2020.
Reviewer bio: Kim Horner, author of Probably Someday Cancer: Genetic Risk and Preventative Mastectomy, is a writer who lives in Richardson, Texas. Connect with her at kimdhorner.com.
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