“When I walked into the doctor’s office, I was really rather pleased with myself, all things considered, pleased with the way I felt, with my own flair, with my own style. The doctor’s nurse, a charmingly bright and steady woman of about my own age who had always given me a feeling of quiet no-nonsense support on my other visits, called me into the examining room. On the way, she asked me how I was feeling.
‘Pretty good’, I said, half-expecting her to make some comment about how good I looked.
‘You’re not wearing a prosthesis’, she said, a little anxiously, and not at all like a question.
‘No’, I said, thrown off my guard for a minute. ‘It really doesn’t feel right’, referring to the lambswool puff given to me by the Reach for Recovery volunteer in the hospital.
Usually supportive and understanding, the nurse now looked at me urgently and disapprovingly as she told me that even if it didn’t look exactly right it was ‘better than nothing’, and that as soon as my stitches were out I could be fitted for a ‘real form’.
‘You will feel so much better with it on’, she said. ‘And besides, we really like you to wear something, at least when you come in. Otherwise it’s bad for the morale of the office’.
I could hardly believe my ears! I was too outraged to speak then, but this was to be only the first such assault on my right to define and to claim my own body.
Here we were, in the offices of one of the top breast cancer surgeons in New York City. Every woman there either had a breast removed, might have to have a breast removed, or was afraid of having to have a breast removed. And every woman there could have used a reminder that having one breast did not mean her life was over, nor that she was less a woman, nor that she was condemned to the use of a placebo in order to feel good about herself and the way she looked.
Yet a woman who has one breast and refuses to hide that fact behind a pathetic puff of lambswool which has no relationship nor likeness to her own breasts, a woman who is attempting to come to terms with her changed landscape and changed timetable of life and with her own body and pain and beauty and strength, that woman is seen as a threat to the ‘morale’ of a breast surgeon’s office!
Yet when Moishe Dayan, the Prime Minister of Israel, stands up in front of parliament or on TV with an eyepatch over his empty eyesocket, nobody tells him to go get a glass eye, or that he is bad for the morale of the office. The world sees him as a warrior with an honorable wound, and a loss of a piece of himself which he has marked, and mourned and moved beyond. And if you have trouble dealing with Moishe Dayan’s empty eye socket, everyone recognizes that it is your problem to solve, not his.
Well, women with breast cancer are warriors, also. I have been to war, and still am. So has every woman who had had one or both breasts amputated because of the cancer that is becoming the primary physical scourge of our time. For me, my scars are an honourable reminder that I may be a casualty in the cosmic war against radiation, animal fat, air pollution, McDonald’s hamburgers and Red Dye No. 2, but the fight is still going on, and I am still a part of it. I refuse to have my scars hidden or trivialized behind lambswool or silicone gel. I refuse to be reduced in my own eyes or in the eyes of others from warrior to mere victim, simply because it might render me a fraction more acceptable or less dangerous to the still complacent, those who believe if you cover up a problem it ceases to exist. I refuse to hide my body simply because it might make a woman-phobic world more comfortable.”
Are cancer patients ‘warriors’? Has the opinion on this changed since Lorde wrote this diary entry in 1980?
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The ICU was created by Brian Lobel and Complicite, in collaboration with South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. Web design by Chipp Jansen, films by Simon Eves and design by StudioThreeSixty. It was made possible by support from the Cultural Institute at King's College London, the Wellcome Trust and the National Theatre.