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I didn’t wake up dead!

by Rev. Irene Monroe . Contributing Writer



I have breast cancer — I make this public announcement to help me better accept the blow that has struck me. I look at the horror and shock in your face of this news to assess if I am experiencing this moment in real time or whether this is just merely the nightmare I can’t wake up from? And like the “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts, who announced in August 2007 she had breast cancer, I, too, never thought I would be writing this.

But now I must stop and see my life differently, as African-American lesbian poet and activist Audre Lorde told all women confronted with breast cancer in The Cancer Journals before she succumbed to the disease in 1992. Because each battle in this health crisis is so personal and different for each woman, there really are no instructional guides on how to handle your life after the diagnosis.

“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 twenty 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. I am now 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. I must also explore the political and emotional implications of prosthetic breasts hiding the pain of amputation and disguising the epidemic of the disease. The oftentimes dangerous reconstructive surgeries in the name of “quality of life” and “normal” femininity are now a factor I must face personally. All of these issues, and more, are mine to face personally.

Why did I speak out now? Why did I feel it necessary? Because 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. 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 made a return to the stage bald from chemotherapy 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. But be leery of some of the self-help books and New Age Religions on the market, because they too can make you go in hiding with their “blame the victim” philosophies that will flog you as painfully as self-flagellation and the expected fire-and-brimstone theologies.

While it is true 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 orientations being diagnosed with breast cancer today? Is there an environmental link?

For example, research has shown there is a correlation between environmental pollutants and breast cancer, like personal care products containing endocrine disruptors and other controversial compounds that have been marketed to both black and white women in popular women’s magazines since the 1950’s.

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 will be found to have invasive breast cancer in 2008. 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 will increase your chances. The Mautner Project, founded in 1990 following the 1989 death of Mary-Helen Mautner, helps to address the homophobia and life-threatening illnesses lesbian and bisexual women are likely to face in our health care system.

My good news for now is that I’m up! I didn’t wake up dead but I woke up still suspicious as to why so many women are confronted with this disease. I got the report from my surgical oncologist that my nodes are negative. Yippee! So this is what I know so far on this journey: My cancer is Stage 1, my nodes are negative, my tumor is the size of a blueberry and there is no sign of metastasis. Whew! This is perhaps as good as it gets for a person diagnosed with breast cancer.

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