Audre Lorde's "The Cancer Journals"

A Memoir Seeking Wholeness

Poet Audre Lorde, 1983
Poet Audre Lorde, 1983. Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

The Cancer Journals, published in 1980, is a chronicle of poet Audre Lorde’s experience with breast cancer. She began writing journal entries a few months after her mastectomy. The Cancer Journals collects her writings into a memoir that battles despair, meditates on women's health and explores the relation of medicine and control to identity and wholeness.

Audre Lorde asks in The Cancer Journals where she can find a model of how to deal with cancer, an understanding or a guide.

She also questions Western medicine and asserts that women should control their own health and healing.

Another Piece of Her Layers of Identity

When The Cancer Journals was published in 1980, Audre Lorde was already an important feminist poet. She had often criticized the popular feminist movement for focusing exclusively on white women, and she insisted on naming other oppression, including the racist assumptions white women brought to their feminism.

By exploring her health and her fight with cancer, Audre Lorde describes another piece of herself as a woman. In The Cancer Journals, Audre Lorde asks how her “experiences with cancer fit into the larger tapestry” of the history of women and her “work as a Black woman.”  The book is a part of her lifelong attempt to write all her experiences, even when they do not fit in neat categories.

Women's Health Empowerment

Audre Lorde also writes that battling despair means surviving and fighting, and it  means knowing that her work is part of a continuum of women’s work.

She questions the powerful medical establishment's insistence on prosthetics and other advances to help people look “normal.” Does an insistence on being physically normal interfere with a woman’s ability to heal? Is this a denial of a woman's importance, her self, in favor of what society wants to see?

“I am still alive, and might not have been.”

Audre Lorde writes that when she was told her tumor was probably malignant she began contemplating her mortality. She found that what she most regretted were her silences. The book transforms silence, turning it into words and thus action. The Cancer Journals has been praised by other feminist writers such as Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Smith and Margaret Randall.

Breast cancer awareness and public discussion of women's health increased greatly in the United States during the 20th century. Feminist voices such as Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals were at the forefront of this women’s issue.