May is “Get Caught Reading” month! What are you reading at the moment?
While many things are similar, the emotional and physical impact a cancer diagnosis brings distinctive challenges for LGBTQ2S+ people. There are thousands of books written about the cancer journey. Books written by queer authors are rarer. We’ve listed three of our favourites below.
Cancer in Two Voices (Sandra Butler and Barbara Rosenblum)
Cancer in Two Voices, was published in 1988. It is a hybrid collection of journal entries, letters and essays written jointly by Butler and Rosenblum, a lesbian couple experiencing the end stages of life and the impact of loss. Rosenblum was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer at the age of 42, following several egregious misdiagnoses. The book begins:
On Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 1988, Barbara Rosenblum died. She was my partner, my friend, my love. Now I sit at a computer trying to carve shape and substance into the cold marble of memory
The book is a raw and beautiful story that navigates the fraught territory of the experiences of the dying partner and that of the one who is left to grieve. Although this book is about the process of dying, it is also a beautiful depiction of what it means to love.
There is also gratitude that balances my loss … She is still there inside her changing body—the body so different from the body I first touched and held. One breast still high and firm. I have two breasts, somewhat fallen and considerably less firm. My body, too, has changed, grown older, and softened. We have become clearer to each other and to ourselves though, our bodies less opaque. We can see through, into each other. We are living in changed and changing bodies—living with full hearts and open minds and great love.
The Cancer Journals (Audre Lorde)
Audre Lorde wrote perhaps the most famous queer cancer memoir “The Cancer Journals”. Although written over 40 years ago, this immensely impactful book that contains journal entries, memoir and commentary still resonates with great political and personal power.
I do not wish my anger and pain and fear about cancer to fossilize into yet another silence, nor to rob me of whatever strength can lie at the core of this experience, openly acknowledged and examined. For other women of all ages, colors, and sexual identities who recognize that imposed silence about any area of our lives is a tool for separation and powerlessness, and for myself, I have tried to voice some of my feelings and thoughts about the travesty of prosthesis, the pain of amputation, the function of cancer in a profit economy, my confrontation with mortality, the strength of women loving, and the power and rewards of self-conscious living.
The emotions that she expresses, her fear and “molten despair and waves of mourning” are universal, but Lorde’s viewpoint, as a black feminist and lesbian, is counter to the prevailing straight, white bright-siding narrative of the time. Lorde describes herself as a warrior, breaking the silence and speaking the truth. Her response to her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, similar to her response to the numerous challenges she encountered throughout her life, is both a source of wisdom and compassion for fellow cancer travellers and a call to arms.
Flat (Catherine Guthrie)
Catherine Guthrie’s book is a compelling account of her cancer diagnosis (and mis-diagnosis) and the effects of living through and beyond cancer treatment. She describes the process of deciding to forgo reconstruction after a double mastectomy:
Some of my straight friends assumed going flat was an easier choice for me because of my queerness. They knew that some butch-identifying lesbians bound their breasts to achieve flatness. But what they couldn’t know was that my breasts were a part of my queer-femme identity. That there was nothing easy about it.
Shortly after her surgery Guthrie was visited by a nurse offering her “breast forms”, two “cottony white footballs” three times the size of her original breasts. She recalls the experience of Audre Lorde. On the day after Lorde’s mastectomy she was encouraged to wear lambswool pads to disguise her surgery. When she refused she was reprimanded for posing a threat to the other patients’ morale.
Both Guthrie and Lorde experienced their queerness and gender in different ways but both accounts show us the damage of societal expectations of femininity and the misogyny which is at the heart of much of the treatment of breast cancer.
The three books we’ve shared are all about breast cancer, and mainly focus on a cisgender narrative. What other queer cancer books do you know of? Let us know!
Our website houses an anthology of stories that help communicate the many different ways queer, trans and nonbinary people experience cancer. We’ve looked hard for diverse voices and are keen to find more. If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community please get in touch.
If you want to buy a copy of one of our book choices please consider buying local! Independent bookstores (and especially queer-owned bookstores) need your support!