I didn’t wake up dead

I have breast cancer.

I tell you this to better accept the blow that has struck me. I anticipate your horror and shock to help assess what I am experiencing at this moment in real time or to test whether this is just merely a nightmare from which I can’t wake up. And like “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts, who announced in August that she had breast cancer, I, too, never thought I would say I have breast cancer.

And quite honestly, in the hurried and harried life I live, like most of us, who has time for this kind of interruption? But interrupt me cancer did, giving me reason now to stop and assess my life differently that I did before, as African American lesbian poet and activist Audre Lorde advised in her book, “The Cancer Journals” all women confronted with breast cancer do. Lorde succumbed to the disease in 1992.

While there are a plethora of support groups and organizations nationwide for women like us, there are no instructional guides, road maps or formulas on how to personally handle this ongoing health crisis, because it is about the particular woman herself.

“Each woman responds to the crisis that breast cancer brings to her life out of a whole pattern, which is the design of who she is and how her life has been lived. The weave of her every day existence is the training ground for how she handles crisis,” Lorde wrote.

The weave of my everyday existence for the past 20 years has been about social injustice concerning race, class, gender identities and expressions as it relates to religious intolerance. But now I take up another gauntlet: the politics of breast cancer, because this too is personal. In the past few weeks, I have begun exploring the function of cancer in a profit economy, the medical establishments’ indifference to cultural and sexual differences and insensitivity to women’s health issues, the political and emotional implications of prosthetic breasts that hide an amputation and disguises the epidemic of the disease, and the oftentimes dangerous reconstructive surgeries done in the name of “quality of life” and “normal” femininity.

But our silence and invisibility on this issue will not protect me or other women.
In October 2004, two-time Grammy winner rock singer-songwriter and lesbian activist Melissa Etheridge was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Our society doesn’t say the word cancer much,” said Etheridge at the time. When her grandmother was dying from breast cancer, no one even told Etheridge what was wrong. But Etheridge refused to remain silent or invisible with the disease. At the 2005 Grammy Awards, Etheridge, bald as a result of a treatment of chemotherapy, returned to the stage and performed a tribute to Janis Joplin. Etheridge was praised not only for her performance but also for courage.
With any illness you look for spiritual sustenance. In the last few weeks, I’ve learned to be leery of some of the self-help books and New Age Religions on the market, because they, too, can make you go into hiding with their “blame the victim” philosophies. I am reminded of flog-you-painfully, self-flagellative, and fire-and-brimstone theologies.

Case in point: Louise Hay, renowned metaphysical lecturer and author of the bestseller “Heal Your Body: The Mental Causes for Physical Illness and the Metaphysical Way to Overcome Them.” Hay espouses a “blame-the -victim” philosophy concerning breast cancer. She writes that breast problems arise as as result of refusing to nourish the self, putting everyone else first and over-mothering. While it is true that there is a correlation between “dis-ease” in the mind and disease in the body, the bigger question should be why, with all the advances made in breast cancer research, are there so many women across race, class, education, and sexual orientation divides diagnosed with breast cancer today?

“The idea that the cancer patient should be made to feel guilty about having had cancer, as if in some way it were all her fault for not having been in the right psychological frame of mind at all times to prevent cancer, is a monstrous distortion of the idea that we can use our psychic strengths to help heal ourselves,” wrote Lorde. “This guilt trip which many cancer patients have been led into (you see, it is a shameful thing because you could have prevented it if only you had been more ?) is an extension of the blame-the-victim syndrome. It does nothing to encourage the mobilization of our psychic defenses against the very real forms of death which surround us. It is easier to demand happiness than clean up the environment.”

I have no doubt that there exists a correlation between environmental pollutants and breast cancer. These pollutants interact in the environment and in our bodies, contributing to an epidemic of chronic illnesses. “We call this Toxic Trespass. We did not consent for chemicals known to cause cancer and other illnesses to enter our bodies,” said Deborah Forter, of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition. These pollutants are in our air, foods, water, schools, workplaces and homes, like personal care products containing endocrine disruptors and other controversial compounds that women’s magazines have included and marketed to black and white women since the 1950′s.

Because of the disparity in health care, African American women are more likely to die from the disease, although more white women are diagnosed with it. Being a lesbian or bisexual woman does not increase your risk for breast cancer, but risk factors like fear of coming out to health care providers, less access to health insurance, and having fewer doctor visits for mammograms and professional breast exams could increase your chances. To address the life-threatening illnesses lesbian, bisexual and transwomen are likely to face in our health care system, the Mautner Project was founded, following the death of Mary-Helen Mautner in 1989 of breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, every three minutes, a woman in the U.S is diagnosed with breast cancer. It is the most common cancer among women, and about 178,480 women learned they have invasive breast cancer last year.

On Dec. 11, my surgical oncologist told me that my breast MRI found two more suspicious lumps that might be cancerous. The discovery meant the difference between my having a lumpectomy (as was scheduled to take place on Dec. 12) – the removal of one cancerous lump in the breast – or a mastectomy – the removal of the entire breast. On Dec. 12, the doctors performed a biopsy on each lump, a process that lasted for two hours. On Dec. 14, the results came in: the two lumps were benign. Hallelujah! My partner and I escaped to St. Croix afterward, but returned so I could have my scheduled lumpectomy operation to remove the cancerous tumor on Dec. 24.

Since my surgery, my surgical oncologist has discovered that my nodes are negative. Yippee! I’m here. I’m up. I didn’t wake up dead on Dec. 25, but woke up suspicious about why so many women are diagnosed with breast cancer. As each day goes by, I get a tad stronger in facing this daunting health crisis, and this is what I know now: My cancer is Stage 1, my nodes are negative, my tumor is the size of a blueberry, and there is no sign of metastasis,. This is perhaps as good as it gets for a person diagnosed with breast cancer.

Published January 8, 2008 in In Newsweekly, Black Commentator, and bilerico.com.

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