Audre Lorde: Breast Cancer Through a Feminist Perspective

Audre Lorde: Breast Cancer Through a Feminist Perspective 

         The Cancer Journals, written by Audre Lorde, describes her intense struggles while battling breast cancer. This traumatic experience ends up leading to a series of feminist insights as to how breast cancer can be contracted by all women, no matter their race or status, as Lorde stated that, “Any woman who has had a breast removed because of cancer knows she does not feel the same” (Lorde 104). In this blog, I show how The Cancer Journals critiques the patriarchal emphasis on breast cancer as a cosmetic problem that can be solved by a post-mastectomy patient wearing a prosthetic breast. By contrast, Lorde depicts breast cancer as a bonding experience with the women around her as well as an exploitation of the patriarchy within the medical field.

In Lorde’s experiences, the unity she expected was often negated as her fellow female nurses overly emboldened her to obtain a prosthetic breast. However, Lorde took offense to this notion, as she found she was far more desperate to mend her inner thoughts and apprehensions exponentially more than her outward appearance. By addressing cancer treatment as something that primarily focuses on “cosmetics,” Lorde insinuated that the patriarchy is much more concerned with how she would remain feminine and outwardly appealing to the male eye. Lorde continued to combat this with her need to express her inner thoughts and desires that rely on the comforting of her fellow females. This distinct feminism is prominent throughout the text, as Lorde continued to critically focus on inner acceptance rather than a shallow shift in her outward appearance.

         In order to fully grasp the feminist approach of The Cancer Journals, it is imperative to understand who Audre Lorde is and what she stood for. Lorde is a self-proclaimed black, lesbian, feminist, warrior, and mother who dedicated her life to addressing injustices. She was profoundly inspirational, as she advocated for feminist theory, critical race studies, and queer theory, and her work ultimately launched her into the political world where she also generated quite an impact. Not only was Lorde a well-renowned writer, but she also involved herself in teaching and politics, normally focusing on topics of protest as she believes that it is her obligation to voice the truth as she perceives it. Lorde wrote works such as, “Sexism: An American Disease in Blacke-face”, “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminists’s Response”, and “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” She undoubtedly has an intense drive to communicate injustices of the world, and must expel her fury out through her work. The injustices that Lorde focuses on are primarily social and racial— she advocates for revolution and change within society.  A consistent theme throughout her work is the differences in race or class must serve as a reason for celebration and growth.

  Even though women experiencing breast cancer face extremely harsh treatment and the potential of not progressing positively, they unfortunately must still face the male expectation to remain feminine and outwardly pleasing. Lorde, naturally, is quite disturbed by the patriarchy and its unwillingness to let women grieve over their lost breast or breasts when it comes to mastectomies. Although this is an unsettling fact, Lorde was actually the first person to truly make the claim that the options presented to women after a mastectomy reflect a patriarchal perspective. She stated that, “This regressive tie to the past is emphasized by the concentration upon breast cancer as a cosmetic problem, one which can be solved by a prosthetic pretense” (Lorde 101). The overall concern for women to disregard their disturbed emotional and medical states and focus on their appearance is appalling for Lorde— especially because it is a woman who attempts to convince her that enhancement surgery will remedy all of her tribulations.Lorde spoke about the nurse and stated that, “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,’” (Lorde 108). 

Despite the pressure placed on her by medical professionals, Lorde chose not to wear a prosthetic breast, which I interpret as an act of feminist refusal. Her strength and willpower to continue to express her feminist ideals as she rejects the notion that a breast implant will heal her is evidently proof of her disapproval of the prominent patriarchy. She is irate that the male-driven medical industry assumes her first priority after battling cancer would be, “what man I could capture in the future, whether or not my old boyfriend would still find me attractive enough,” (Lorde 102) indicating that patriarchal perspectives dominate  the world of medicine. Undoubtedly, Lorde’s experiences regarding her mastectomy express the intense role feminism has in her life, as she rejects the idea that she must enhance her body simply for a male’s gaze.

Perhaps the most essential aspect of this feminist text is the intense female bond that Lorde relies  on throughout her journey regarding breast cancer. She reveals the brutal obstacles she was forced to endure and exposes her inner turmoil as she struggled to cope with losing a breast. Even though Lorde is incredibly resilient, breast cancer evidently has the ability to break even the strongest woman. Considering this, she shares that there were various positives in her journey. The palpable bond of feminine strength among her fellow females strengthened Audre, and aided her in her realization that she was not alone in this:

“I remember their faces as we shared the knowledge and the promise of shared strength in the trial days to come. In some way it was as if each of the people I love most dearly came one by one to my bedside where we made a silent pledge of strength and sisterhood no less sacred than if it had been pledged in blood rather than love” (Lorde 44)

Enjoying the presence of her friends enabled Lorde to manage her dread that she was “on [her] own” (Lorde 44). Her sisters and friends displayed love and affection that touched Lorde so deeply she insists that she still felt those efforts far beyond the hospital bed. Without the copious amounts of “woman love and strong wishes of faith” (Lorde 46) Lorde would have inevitably been stuck in her thoughts of loneliness in this journey. The feminism in this particular aspect of the text revolves around the love and support from females that guided Lorde through this painful journey. 

Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, embraces feminist ideals and depicts  feminine unity as a prominent support system in regard to breast cancer. Lorde’s ability to remain intact during such a dire time was evidently held together by the women in her life, and ultimately reflects the feminism that exudes from the female love she experienced during her tribulations. Although her experience with women was predominantly positive during this time, she undoubtedly felt the heat of the patriarchy as female nurses urged her to embrace cosmetic treatment. Breast cancer, in Lorde’s understanding, was full of feminist insights as she was exposed to the kindness of women and shortcomings of the patriarchy. Lorde states that, “A lifetime of loving women had taught me that when women love each other, physical change does not alter that love” (102). This particular quote seems to encompass much of her story as it introduces the intense love and female bonding she sensed, without her giving in to the pressure of focusing on her outward appearance and wearing  a prosthetic. Lorde’s act of writing The Cancer Journals shares these feminine insights that she has been a part of and critiqued as she overcomes breast cancer. The writing of this book serves the purpose to share these positive and negative aspects. Assuredly, the text inspires females to reassess the patriarchy and embrace female sodality as breast cancer impacts all women— doting on Audre Lorde’s primary theme in her work that differences should promote connections and celebration. 

Works Cited

Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals: Special Edition. S.n., 2006.Bagnarelli, Bianca. “Illustration.” The New Yorker, 8 Apr. 2019,

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