Tag Archives: breast cancer

A Portion of This Paper…

So I mentioned that I’ve been reading a lot (more) about cancer; I’m currently writing a seminar paper on 21st century women’s cancer narratives, which I’ll be turning into a conference paper to present on a panel at the Michigan Women’s Studies Association conference–“Leading the Way: Feminism, Education, and Social Change”– in March. I presented a version of this in class yesterday. Abstract below.

A Portion of This Paper Will Help Fight Breast Cancer: Women’s Cancer Narratives and Twenty-First Century Survivor Subjectivity

 The rise of the breast cancer narrative as a popular genre evolves largely out of the establishment, in 1985—and the subsequent commercial propagation—of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month: an annual cultural phenomenon sponsored by the pharmeceutical company AstraZeneca. The genre’s initial emergence in the 80s and 90s marks the emergence of a new subjectivity—the “politicized patient”—and a new genre: a Foucauldian “counternarrative to medical discourse.” [1]  In the twenty-five years since its inception, breast cancer awareness culture has moved from a model of a politicized patient to an increasingly commercialized one; adopted by corporate culture as a “cause,” breast cancer becomes a brand name. In the twenty-first century, the breast cancer narrative therefore demands not only a counternarrative to medical discourse, but a counternarrative to the commercial discourse in which women’s stories are used as useful marketing tools for the cultivation of the uniform subjectivity of “survivor.” Thirty years on from the publication of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, a second generation of female cancer patient subjectivity persists: a sentimentally politicized patienthood, carrying with it a ubiquitously commercialized, normalized ur-narrative of “survival.” In this paper, I explore the ways in which American women’s cancer narratives operate in the post-feminist twenty-first century, particularly how the “survivor” subjectivity is constructed, or deconstructed, against the backdrop of American commercial culture.


[1] See Lisa Diedrich, Treatments: Language, Politics, and the Culture of Illness. (Minneapolis: Univ of Minnesota Press, 2007), pp. 25-6.

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Inescapable

I’m in a study carrel at the University of Michigan library, and I want to scream and cry and kick the four walls of my enclosure.  

Yesterday during a break from class I opened up my New York Times homepage to find Elizabeth Edwards had died. This morning I woke up to Elizabeth Edwards’ voice on NPR, from an interview in which she calmly accepts her own death. She could not believe, she said, in a God who allows senseless tragedies to happen. A sixteen year old who dies in a car crash. And breast cancer. The swift erasure of so many women.

Today I procrastinate during paper writing by checking in with the blogosphere, to find that one of  the breast cancer bloggers from my blogroll, Jill, who has been living with Stage 4 triple-negative breast cancer, is in the hospital and not doing at all well. Her family is asking for prayers.

Breast cancer, I fucking hate you.

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In our time (at our age): Facts & Figures

1. “During 2002-2006, women aged 20-24 had the lowest incidence rate, 1.4 cases per 100,000 women.”

2. “The 5-year relative survival rate is slightly lower among women diagnosed with breast cancer before age 40 (83%) compared to women diagnosed at ages 40 or older (90%). This may be due to tumors diagnosed at younger ages being more aggressive and less responsive to treatment.”

3. “Women with breast cancer also are at risk for developing a second primary cancer. There is a strong relationship between younger age at diagnosis of the primary breast cancer and risk of subsequent cancer. Women diagnosed with early-onset breast cancer (age <40) have almost a 3-fold increased risk of any subsequent cancer, with a 4.5-fold increased risk of subsequent breast cancer.”

Source: American Cancer Society Breast Cancer Facts and Figures, 2009-2010.

The oncologist has spoken to the gynecologist re: me.

Oncologist: the gynecologist thinks you’re depressed. Are you?

Is it any wonder?

She writes me a prescription for an antidepressant that causes headaches and tremors and hands me a radiology requisition for a chest x-ray as I’ve been complaining of chest/rib pain. I walk down to Radiology, then turn and walk out of the hospital. I tucked the x-ray requisition, along with the antidepressant prescription, into a copy of Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic, where both have remained since.

I’m tired of tests and drugs.

My problem, I told her, is not a seratonin imbalance or a residual, inexplicable melancholy. My problem is cancer.

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“How are you?” *punchface*

   A question a cancer patient can’t answer.

  The problem with providing answers or “updates” is that our conditions are mysteries to us too. We don’t know what’s couched in our bodies, or where, or when it will rear up again. People want to add their own neat  ending to the cancer narrative: “but you’re ok now, right?” Most often meaning: “but you have hair.”  

How am I? I don’t know.  In inexplicable pain, mostly. I might have uterine cancer. My ribs and chest and lungs ache a lot these days; my cancer might have metastasized  and I might die before I’m thirty.  

I also might be fine.

So in response, I just say “fine.”

Recently I had to explain to my boyfriend that chances of recurrance do not decrease by year–that chance of recurrence spikes at year 5 post-treatment. Also that metastasis is The End. Also that when I go to the doctor, it’s to monitor for a second primary cancer in the left breast, not to monitor for metastasis.  That you can’t monitor with blood tests or continual scans. That there’s no benefit to finding it “early.” That you can’t find it “early” anyway. He didn’t know these things. I felt like I’d punched him in the face. I may as well have.

But the reality is too much to bear. It’s easier to believe you’re living in a permanent state of ineffectual hypochondria, and of course you will go on, forever, forever.

There’s no cure for cancer.

If I found out I couldn’t have children, I wouldn’t want to live.

If I knew I was going to die within the next five years, ie. before finishing my Ph.D., what would I do about it? Probably nothing. What could I? But part of me wants to know, because hope can be an embarrassing thing, and I’d rather get it done with.

The New York Times Book Review recently ran a piece on the book The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee. Excerpt:

 The oldest surviving description of cancer is written on a papyrus from about 1600 B.C. The hieroglyphics record a probable case of breast cancer: “a bulging tumor . . . like touching a ball of wrappings.” Under “treatment,” the scribe concludes: “none.”

 In Mukherjee’s words: “dying, even more than death, defines the illness.”

The other day I was reaching up on a high pile of books and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ On Death and Dying fell down and hit me in the face. I’ve never read it. I feel like I don’t have to now. I know what  dying feels like. Like a punch in the face.

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Pinktober, Take 2

I’ve not written here since beginning the Ph.D. this fall–unsurprising, I suppose, considering the how much else I’m supposed to be writing right now; but then, it is my mind’s constant confrontation with cancer that prevents me from getting things done. I’m not sure if this is biological–the destruction of my brain function from the chemo–or psychological, but either way, it is an omnipresent obstacle to my concentration, to my caring about anything. Always in the background of this program there is murmuring about the career trajectory–quals and prelims and dissertation and the academic job market six years from now. Six sick years.

It doesn’t help, of course, that it’s dreaded Pinktober–and though I’m not as angry as my first “survival” enounter with this media frenzy phenomenon, see rant c. 10/2009–I’m beset with inexpressible sadness and frustration every time I walk up to the library and have to step on pink ribbons rendered in sidewalk-chalk by cheerful sorority girls. The bitterness is there too, of course; I can’t help but half-imagine one of them getting breast cancer in her twenties, and see how many pink ribbons she’s graffiting campus with afterward.

Then you go into Borders just looking for a little Charlotte Bronte and see a display table packed with Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor’s Soul.

 I’ve become fascinated by the photographs in David Jay’s exhibition The Scar Project , portraits of post-mastectomy breast cancer patients–“survivors,” he says–between the ages of 18 and 35. On his website, Jay says:

  “For these young women, having their portrait taken seems to represent their personal victory over this terrifying disease. It helps them reclaim their femininity, their sexuality, identity and power after having been robbed of such an important part of it. Through these simple pictures, they seem to gain some acceptance of what has happened to them and the strength to move forward with pride.”

I’m uncomfortable with this rhetoric of rescue via male-photographer-facilitated exhibition (“Through these simple pictures, they seem to gain some acceptance”).What would Judith Butler have to say about the male gaze here, one wonders? However, I think Jay’s project is important in showing bodies. In them, I don’t necessarily see the fierce Amazonian warrior-woman society wants to see in the “survivor,” so that they can close themselves off to the implications of illness and intimations of death: a warm-and-fuzzy “pink” feeling–a modern manifestation, I think of, sentimentality’s commodity culture (I have been reading the incomporable Lauren Berlant of late)–that precludes any desire to participate in breast cancer politically, to any actual effect.

I regret having had reconstruction. But that is another post.

“Breast cancer is not a pink ribbon,” Jay asserts on the site. At least we’ve got that right here.

The question, though: is Jay’s photographic exhibition an act of exhibitionism?  Speaking of which, I came across this “Tattoos for the Maimed and Handicapped” post on the “Bizarre Stuff” blog; the first photo  is of two mastectomy tattoos. Mastectomy as “maiming”? Mastectomy as “handicap”? The blog enthusiastically invites the voyeuristic gaze of the freak show audience, wide eyed, rubbernecked, finger-pointing, delighted and appalled; I can practically hear it:

Cancer, cancer everywhere and not thing to think.

I have much more to say, but I think this post has reached an appropriate length. Keep posted, and I will post more.

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Overdue update, & encountering cancer

This is largely what I saw the first time I encountered cancer:

I was wearing this absurdly cheerful polka-dot skirt the day I went for my biopsy results and was informed I had a Stage 2, Grade 2 breast cancer.  I was looking at my lap, my feet, the sterile linoleum floor, trying not to throw up–shocked and strangely interested in the intense sickness I felt, the visceral nature of my response.

Contrary to appearances–as well as what I said here–I am not, after all, planning on discontinuing the writing of this blog.

Firstly, I’ve been waylaid in my attentiveness to the project of posting the journal entries from my treatment, having reached no satisfying conclusion to this narrative.

But secondly, and more to the point, there is no satisfying conclusion to this narrative. In April I said, “I am anxiously awaiting the day when I stop writing about cancer entirely” — that “I do not want write this blog any longer. Or, not until the next time I encounter cancer, which I can only hope will be never.”

Yet I am constantly encountering cancer. It would be hopelessly naive of me to believe I could rid this from my life entirely, and move swiftly on to considering only 19th century American literature, as if returning from some awful Oz.

I’ve moved to Michigan now, and am in the dreadful process of trying to transfer my treatment to the University of Michigan Cancer Center. I say “process,” but in actuality I have reached a seeming impossible impasse with them, as I cannot get in touch with the hospital in London to locate slides and films which may longer exist in the first place. They will not admit me as a patient without them. So, right now, I am nobody’s patient. In a way I like the feeling of that–no hospitals on the horizon–except that constant patient-status for the rest of my life is absolutely essential.

Further to the persistent problem of pelvic pain, I had an ultrasound awhile ago (I didn’t realize until I got into the examining room that this was a transvaginal ultrasound, all in all a rather absurd procedure wherein they put a lubricated condom on a big fat wand and basically, well, fuck you with it). Last week I got a call from the physician’s assistant reporting no major abnormalities, but the gynecologist advised a uterine biopsy to rule out the possibility of the uterine cancer which could be a side effect of Tamoxifen.

I declined the invitation, as attractive as it sounded. I absolutely cannot deal with the thought of a biopsy right now. Moreover, the whole idea is rendered completely hypothetical, as I DON”T HAVE ANY DOCTORS HERE.

Back on the subject of the polka-dot skirt: I’ve had a kind of superstition about that skirt since; I can’t look at it without hearing “cancer,” hearing it applied to me. But I wore it today to the orientation meeting for my Ph.D. I’m terrified of this undertaking now, in the wake of the way the chemo ravaged my brain–the terrible problems with memory and concentration and articulation it’s left me with, which don’t lend at all well to a doctoral degree in literature. But this is what I mean–I encounter cancer & its consequences constantly.

We’re stuck with one another here, it seems.

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7 August 2009: awaiting my own tragedy

Day after biopsy–sitting bandaged in the backyard. An excruciating experience all around–less from the pain of the surgery than the hospital inefficiency, in a corner alone for hours afterward, told I’d see the surgeon–that I must see the surgeon–before leaving. “Before six.” Near seven I’m confronted with a registrar who does nothing, looks at my bandage, asks, “Are you always this pale?” Refuses to answer when I ask how to take care of my stitches, dressings, etc. Says the nurses will explain everything. She goes home. The nurses don’t know. Seven days or one, covered or left exposed? So I am still bandaged, taking painkillers and waiting.

What an absolute mess I must seem–and am, snapping at everyone and crying. Jetlagged still, having managed to sleep half an hour before going to the hospital, my first time under general anesthesia, terrified and alone. And back for the mastectomy, the “real” surgery, in a week. The seemingly impossible process of recovery.

The girl in the next bed was laughing, joking with the hospital staff. She was in to have a fibroid cyst removed. “As long as no one cuts my nipple off,” she says to the nurse, smiling. And I think–this is wrong, a grave mistake, shouldn’t it be me there? Instead the urgency of my situation is amplified. Five months ago, it is now almost, waiting for the diagnosis which was almost certainly, they assured me, fibroadenoma. Then cancer. The giant leap for womankind. Now this radioactive, surgical biopsy, more serious, but somehow less horrible than the first because it wasn’t a surprise, an invasion of that magnitude. Now waiting to find out not whether I have the horrible disease, but how horribly I have it. Grading. I always got good grades. And despite my perpetual pessimism about most things, I have a strange optimism about biopsies. Which is dangerous of course, because look what happened before.

So the doctor I met with in Pittsburgh says he’d be “surprised” if it had spread to the lymph nodes. But then, that’s exactly what they said here, only to find it was cancer. Surprise! After “I’m sure it’s nothing.” Sure. That roomful of people, looking at each other, nodding in unison to confirm how surprised they were. Me, stupid, faint, childish in my polka dot skirt and Mary Janes. What does their surprise mean to me? Should I feel honored? At their optimism, if that’s what it was. Dr. S. saying, “we’re hopeful.” As if hope were a treatment, a cure. As if it were anything.

It was raining then too, the day of my diagnosis. I was clutching my blue raincoat in the hospital hallway. Raining the day I began chemo, when I climbed into the loft bed of my little flat and vomited. And a downpour yesterday; we drove to London, dangerously, in it, and it began again fourteen hours later in time for us to leave. K. ran to the car while I stood outside the hospital, holding nothing and sobbing. “Are you okay?” someone said. And I nodded, because what do you say to a stranger?

“How old are you?” the nurse asked yesterday. “Twenty-four? You’re a baby.”

Of course I am. I have never felt younger or more helpless, never. And my body has never felt older, more decrepit and disgusting.

The bandage is not so bad, it’s everything else. My hair of course, getting patchy, falling out steadily, the pathetic covering I regrew over the past few months littering the pillows. Lost hair, gained weight. They made me strip off my nail polish yesterday and I got a look at my cracked yellowed nails. All to complement the fake, nippleless, Franken-stitched breast they’ll make me. I feel sorry for K. I wonder how he can stand it. Maybe he can’t.

At home, I flipped through my high school journals, and was not as embarrassed at that self as I imagined, but amazed at my intensity. Perspicacious pessimism–and actually prophetic in it, or at least realistic. I wrote at seventeen: “I am awaiting my own tragedy.”

Everyone has one, surely, coming up, sooner or later, I supposed. To varying degrees, maybe. But I’ve always been waiting for it. Or maybe  pessimism causes cancer, that holed-up negative energy. Maybe. Either way–awaiting my tragedy? Here it be. Continue reading

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