Between Visibility and Precarity: Reading Audre Lorde’s ‘The Cancer Journals’


By Paromita Patranobish

At the age of 44, Audre Lorde was diagnosed with a malignant tumour in her right breast and presented with a choice between an aggressive treatment and the surgical removal of her cancerous breast. At the time of her diagnosis in 1978, Lorde was an established poet, a Black feminist writer and teacher. She had been active within civil rights movements and intellectual circles that included her partner Frances Clayton, Adrienne Rich, Maureen Brady, and Judith McDaniel among others staunchly advocating against systemic racism and the heteropatriarchal oppression of social and sexual minorities. With her diagnosis, Lorde was confronted with an altered existential terrain in which the physical and emotional vicissitudes brought about by cancer were coupled with a devastating post-operative experience of dehumanization, prejudice, and potential invisibilisation, often by the medical establishment itself. In the wake of her mastectomy, cancer became for Lorde a fertile site for mounting a powerful critique of the societal norms – reproduced by various media representations and medico-scientific discourses – that coerce women’s bodies into models benefitting capitalist structures and their consumerist agendas of reducing precarious lives and complex suffering to economies of profit maximization.

The transmutation of lived experience into language through the journals that Lorde maintained during her convalescence is not only an archival self-assertion against the gendered forces of amnesia, misappropriation, and erasure. Writing becomes a space and gesture of reclamation that allows Lorde to reinscribe her diseased, mutilated, and non-normative body within the field of narratively constructed truth and visibility. Lorde uses the ailing body’s specific capacities, knowledge, needs, and energies, both creative and erotic, as modes of interrupting and restructuring the values and beliefs that constitute ‘normalcy.’ She shows how the construction of everyday, routine normality involves, among other forms of violence, the normalization of the repression or demonization of the sick or disabled body. The heightened sensory topography of pain, sensuous contact with bodies of female caregivers, cognitive estrangement produced by anaesthesia, and a shifting spectrum of self-relation from alienation to confusion to tender acceptance through which the single-breasted anatomy is rendered legible – all create a new politics of writing the body.

The supposed lack signified by the removed breast is reconfigured via language into a source of ecstatic, radical excess. This in turn brings to a crisis the imposition of lack as a calculated tactic mobilised by patriarchal culture as the only optic through which women are re-conditioned to view themselves after breast cancer. The persecution and precarization of the middle aged, cancerous female body is one trajectory in an intersecting web of violations wrought upon black, non-binary, disabled, and other socially marginalized lives. Lorde’s personal pathography is thus contextually grounded in a larger commitment to unpacking the threads of this matrix of institutionalised oppression.

The Cancer Journals (1980) encompasses a hybrid form. It comprises a loosely woven compendium of lectures, entries excerpted from the author’s private diaries kept during the one-year period that the narrative spans, fragments from her poetry and transcriptions of her conversations with her women friends and family. The first chapter written as a lecture, takes up the question of the relationship between pain and language. How does one reproduce in language that which pushes language to its limits without diminishing pain’s urgency or the work’s capacity to make sense to a reader removed from the context of pain? How can the specific sensory and corporeal effects of illness that are at once intensely private and isolating be made into a threshold for mobilizing a shared continuum of suffering? And how can the articulation of physical and psychic pain itself serve as a common ground for staging an intersectional politics: a politics that enables an individual’s private experience to enter into overlapping alliances with other kinds of adversarial experiences?

Lorde’s chronicling of the excruciating bodily pain and cognitive losses that accompany her surgery and post-surgical recovery are meant to explore pain’s political and communal dimension. In her account the private scene of the mutilated bodily self is transformed into a site and an occasion for charting out the sources and implications of debility. Here debility is seen as both, the effect of a particular illness like cancer but more significantly as a condition produced by the medico-cultural culture within which the ailing individual is inscribed. There is thus on the one hand the conceptualisation of breast cancer as an event: a singular occurrence that upturns and changes for Lorde, certain fundamental assumptions about her life including her relationship with herself, her disposition towards love, eroticism, and sexuality, and her views about time, quotidian existence, and social belonging in ways that unsettle habits and well-entrenched structures of belief. Yet on another level, cancer and the pain it produces, is made into a cog in a medical-industrial complex, what Lorde wryly calls Cancer Inc. with its fixed set of assumptions, procedures, research protocols, and commercial networks, all firmly rooted in a consumerist, corporate ethic. It is in exposing the workings of the latter, and underscoring the links between privatized healthcare, for-profit institutionalized medicine, and gendered and racially informed exploitation of vulnerable bodies, that The Cancer Journals attempts to foster a community of pain hinging on pain’s radical capacity to undermine myths of personal autonomy while serving as an alternative collective-critical lens through which the limits of modern therapeutic practices are brought to the fore.

The difficulties around the translation of pain into signification concern several illness narratives or narratives of trauma, injury, and affliction, from Elaine Scarry’s ground-breaking exploration of the resistive nature of the body in pain, Susan Sontag’s critique of a long tradition of cultural taboo and misrepresentation that distort or erase from sites of common perception, certain illnesses like AIDS, TB, and cancer, to Anne Boyer’s more recent engagement with the contested terrain of illness narratives. In her journalistic memoir, The Undying (2018) Boyer explores the politics of cancer autopathographies, precariously wedged between the Scylla of silence and the Charybdis of commodified excess. The cancer memoir in Boyer’s analysis serves as a new commercially viable genre that is often encouraged by organizations seeking to capitalize on the seemingly utopian trope of survival in order to improve the marketability of their cancer-specific products and services. These narratives then run the risk of becoming unconscious enforcers of certain implicit formal and ideological requirements deciding in advance what the ideal arc of convalescence and recovery, and by extension, of the self should look like for a cancer survivor.

Translation’s difficulties in the case of cancer are as much the body’s as of the commercial delimitation of the field of meaning and representation within which this body is allowed to articulate its pain. Lorde’s concerns occupy this shared space. However, while Boyer privileges a counter-aesthetics of silence and passionate refusal of the imperative to speak as glorified mouthpiece for Cancer Inc., Lorde sees the very gesture of speech as a performative reclamation of the injunction to women’s silencing. Lorde punctures this systemic silencing by allowing the prose of her diary: candid, florid, and lyrical by turns, to centrally occupy the narrative of this section and mimetically offer through its intimate, tentative, profoundly vulnerable and occasionally impressionistic register – the “many stages of pain, despair, fury, sadness and growth” (48) that record the unravelling force of cancer upon the body, subjectivity and more significantly upon the underlying coherence of identity that frames the first-person vantage.

Cancer’s immediate effect is recorded as anxiety, uncertainty, and panic at the imminent erosion of the familiar. In this intimate re-acquaintance with her bodily existence, grief and mourning serve as guides. Lorde’s wording of the forced silences and gaps that characterize women’s illness narratives uses the affective power of grief and mourning as alternatives that implode imposed silences and question stereotypes of conduct. “I want to write about the pain. The pain of waking up in the recovery room which is worsened by that immediate sense of loss” (18) – she confesses and finds herself crying for her lost breast, mourning its absence and a sense of past wholeness that she associates with it. However, the gesture of mourning while providing to the post-operative woman a space to legitimize her emotions vis-à-vis the body in language, is also juxtaposed with another form of dangerous nostalgia, one that pushes women to opt for prosthetic implants and expensive and potentially carcinogenic plastic reconstruction procedures. Citing the example of Reach for Recovery, an organization that works for spreading awareness about and selling implants to post-mastectomy women, Lorde indicts the prosthetic industry as informed by a deeply misogynistic desire to erase or cosmetically disguise the fact of bodily difference. In stark opposition to this pervasive cultural tendency, Lorde uses her journal and the first-person voice to narrate in precise detail the experience of occupying an altered body and of the varieties of feeling that mark the new somatic boundaries of one-breasted embodiment. The definition of the surgical scar and her graphic description of the physical appearance of the post-surgical torso are part of Lorde’s use of the autobiographical description of the disabled and disfigured female body as an intervention into norms of feminine beauty demanded by the cult of prosthesis.

In the third part of her narrative, “Breast Cancer: Power vs. Prosthesis” Lorde exposes the connections between the cosmetic industry, cancer research, non-profit organizations like the American Cancer Association, and the neoliberal medical establishment to demonstrate how the more pertinent concerns of women’s health, longevity, hygiene, physical and psychiatric rehabilitation after cancer are compromised in favour of medical procedures and public protocols. These revolve around the need to recreate a certain standardized prototype of breasted femininity. She recalls the coercion she faces, first after her mastectomy, from a sales representative of Reach for Recovery who tries to convince Lorde about the ability of “a wad of lambswool pressed into a pale pink breast-shaped pad”(48) to revert her body to its earlier appearance, conceal the fact of cancer/surgery, and make her sexually desirable in spite of her altered body, and then from female medical personnel in the speciality hospital where she goes for subsequent follow ups where she is told that her refusal to don a prosthetic breast is “bad for the morale of the office” (45).

With analytical rigour, moral conviction, and thorough research into the for-profit industrial undercurrents of the beauty and medical establishments, Lorde exposes how these converge upon the construction, management, regulation, and marketing of breast cancer in particular, and racial, sexual, and gendered dimensions of identity in general. The medical and therapeutic response to cancer in contemporary capitalist societies is not simply curative, one that caters to the subject’s well-being and recovery. It is a complex process in which notions about ideal body types and codes of femininity are systematically and systemically reinforced. What is administered in breast cancer treatment is not simply medical care but a medically sanctioned field of normativisation attempting to discipline and docilise those bodies which perceived to be a “threat” to the prevailing patriarchal-capitalist order. The hegemonic promises on which the prosthetic cult is based are designed to restore the post surgical body to its prior ‘completeness.’ The very myth of completion and nostalgia for an idealized lost Eden of feminine bodily identity and desirability prior to the Fall caused by cancer which can then be reproduced through the salvific intervention of implants, is premised on the denial of legitimacy to countless other women who do not wear prosthetics, or whose body shape, skin colour, sexual preference, or physical and neurological abilities deviate from the heteronorm.

For Lorde, making it morally, socially, economically viable for a woman to wear an artificial breast after the amputation of a cancerous one amounts to a silencing of her complex and painful experience of navigating a terminal illness and the potential dangers and struggles that constitute the long process of convalescence. Additionally, it also elides the need to focus more squarely on women cancer survivors as corporeal subjects and subjects-at-risk rather than mannequins for the beauty/cosmetic industry. Women’s post-operative needs for basic continuing healthcare, decent shelter and support system, employment and rehabilitation, are deprioritized in favour of unreal norms of acceptability. As Anne Boyer explains in her indictment of the survival narrative, the before and after tales ‘pinkwash’ the fraught and melancholic landscape of cancer with narratives of successful recovery and integration. This in turn highlights and normalizes only a small section of patients, thus exposing contemporary society’s penchant for the reductive arc of smoothened success stories that leave no room for recognizing contradiction, bereavement, remembrance and accountability that the lives lost to cancer require of us. Lorde’s powerful rewriting of the cancer narrative and her use of the format of the illness memoir to point to links otherwise unseen between disease and social justice, compels her readers to rethink cancer beyond the conventional frameworks provided by modern pathology. In her assessment, cancer is a site of precarity at once individual and collective, the sources of which are at once epidemiological and environmental, raising an ethical demand in the light of which intersectional struggles and solidarities might be sought.

In negotiating her own journey with her amputation and the pressure to wear a prosthetic, Lorde posits the figure of the female warrior (a reference to the Amazonian women of Dahomey who had their right breasts cut off to become better archers) and the bodily signs of mastectomy as battle scars. The Amazonian is at once a symbol of her fiercely radical commitment to militate for the rights of women of all body types and abilities, and a plea for disability justice. In a particularly poignant section of The Cancer Journals, Lorde extends her private act of mourning for her amputated breast into a ritual mourning for non-survivors, the women and other social minorities who are killed by (breast) cancer as well as debilitated by various forms of racial violence/injustice: “I carry tattooed upon my heart a list of names of women who did not survive, and there is always a space left for one more, my own” (33). Her writing ultimately serves as both autobiographical narrative as well as a sanctuary within which solidarities are envisaged out of precarity, potential communities of suffering that mourn and mark racial capitalism’s unmarked victims.

Lorde’s memoir establishes the public nature of personal illness. It shows how disease in its causes and the range of institutional, political and cultural response it generates in any given context, can become a potent analytical tool that maps the uneven structure of what Judith Butler calls the terms of liveability and grievability: a pre-established horizon that determines which lives are considered worthy enough to be saved and recognised as lives, and the entire spectrum of lives that are rendered precarious in the process, identified as disposable and excluded from eligibilities to rights and care. Disease and the manner in which diseased and disabled bodies figure within a community’s care-giving ethics, including medical ethics, often reveal, as mounting abuse, violence, loss of livelihoods, and forms of forced displacement affecting the already marginalized in the event of the pandemic, demonstrate, a subtext of racial, sexual, and economic injustice.


Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals (1980). New York: Penguin Books, 2020.

Boyer, Anne The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

Paromita Patranobish is an academic based in New Delhi. She has a PhD in Modernist literature with a focus on nonhuman embodiment in works of Virginia Woolf. She has taught at Shiv Nadar University, Daulat Ram College, and Ambedkar University Delhi.


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