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The Cure - Who Wants One? Anyone?

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“Should I tattoo my scar? What would it say?” – Marilyn Hacker
It is strange to know that some day your body might kill you.
My grandmother has had both of her breasts removed: one before I was born, and one was removed just two years ago. I was with her at the doctor’s appointment when they found the lump. I was in the waiting room when they removed her breast and the lymph nodes near her chest. She always tells me, “Some day I’ll show you the scars,” but I don’t know if I want to see them.
It’s hard to understand that my body might begin to destroy itself. Every time I get a pain in my chest I wonder if the poison is beginning to gather. I wonder if tomorrow might be the day that I feel the tiny lump that will transform my body and the rest of my life. Both of my grandmothers and grandfathers have lived with some form of cancer; I expect that at some point in my life, I will also live with it.
What feels the most bizarre is that my body is a foreign country to me and it might end up being the province that leads to my downfall. I don’t feel strongly about my body. It’s basically the vehicle that I have to exist in. Sometime I resent it because it creates a social appearance that doesn’t do my dreams, aspirations, fears, experiences, triumphs, failures: my body is seen as female. My breasts are “female.” They might also kill me. It makes me mad. These breasts might keep me from doing the things in my life that I want to do, going places I want to go.
I tell my mother, “I didn’t ask for this equipment. How is it fair that it might keep me from living my life one of these days? I don’t want these; I’m never going to use them. It’s not fair.” We don’t get to choose our bodies. Sometimes though, the flaws in our bodies shape our experiences in ways that we could never have understood to be positive until we had to push through them.
My brain betrayed my mind… for years. I have lived most of my life thus far depressed, but never understanding that fact. I thought that I was flawed. I thought that I was crying for no reason at any given moment and wondering what it felt like to not exist because of something that was wrong with me. Not with my brain. When I began medication last year, I had a moment where I said to myself, “How did I live for 19 years without this?” It made me feel so futile, useless. If I had only understood that it wasn’t my fault that I felt so bad, I could have actually lived for 19 years and not just existed.
But some of the things that I saw and experienced were events that wouldn’t have happed if I had been “normal.” I would never change those experiences; they made me who I am today. I can appreciate getting out of bed, being excited about a poem, or the wind touching my face because I went through so many years in the dark.
Nancy Mairs
I don’t think I can say that my brain betrayed my mind any more. My brain tested my mind. It tested my character, my will to live. I didn’t ask for this brain. I didn’t ask for these genes that made my serotonin to do whatever it does. But they’re my genes. These genes that tested me before might test me again. It might be harder this time. The scary thing is that there probably will be another test for me someday. Nancy Mairs describes her experience with MS as a process:

“I lived nearly thirty years in the oblivion of ‘normalcy’ and that I’ve had more than two decades to descend step by step (and then lurch by lurch) to the level where I live now” (Mairs 29).

Our bodies change and test us. For Mairs, a limp developed, and then was complicated by a spot in her eye, and from there on her body continued to change. I expect my body to change, probably in ways that may leave me with little endurance or a great deal of pain, but ultimately mortality is just that, mortality. Bodies are not perfect or normal and they never will be. If they were, mortality would never be an issue.

Am I disabled?
Well, damn, I guess so.
Will I be disabled somehow in the future?
Hell, probably.
What if I went to the doctor’s office tomorrow and they told me that there was a chance that I would have breast cancer in the future? I would have both of my breasts removed. I plan to take advantage of genetic testing, and the earlier I find out definitively about my chances of developing cancer of any type, the earlier I plan to take aggressive action.
Double Mastectomy
Is breast cancer a “women’s issue?” I believe it’s an ability issue. For me, gender has so much and nothing at all to do with it. You see me as gendered because I have breasts. I have breasts, but they have nothing to do with my gender because for me they have more to do with my mortality. I could care less if I have a chest with two huge scars on them. Honestly, if it meant I could live to go to law school, make a difference in the world, and care for my parents and grandparents, I would take scars all over my body.
Am I a woman?
All I know is that I will probably face this “women’s issue” just because I have breasts and that I don’t want to die. In Marilyn Hacker’s poem, “Cancer Winter,” she tells of her experience with breast cancer and the mastectomy of her right breast. The poignant last lines of the work wonder aloud, “I almost forget how close to the bone my chest’s right side is. Unremarkable, I woke up, still alive. Does that mean ‘cured’?” (Hacker 159)
Am I cured?
Can I be cured?
Will I be cured? 
Do I want to be cured?
Hacker gets at the idea of “curing” as “normalizing” or returning a person back to their pre-existing state or to a state of ability that they may have never had. My grandmother can’t be cured. She will live the rest of her life changed; breast cancer has changed her life and the way she lives in her body. I can’t be cured and probably won’t be cured. My life has been shaped in a way that can never be changed because of something that didn’t “go right” in the dark, damp crevices of my brain.
Is disability a category that can be as fluid as gender?
It should be. No one has a body that will not fail them. Some have bodies that will change rapidly within a few years. Some have bodies that will transform as they move into old age. Some have always had a body that makes their life difficult. Sometimes we see disability: someone that has lost their hair from chemotherapy, someone with multiple sclerosis who moves with a wheelchair. Sometimes we don’t: someone with a chronic condition, mental “illness,” or a learning disability.
In Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, she records her experience with breast cancer and dealing with the change in her body and the transformation of her experience. When faced with the option of wearing a prosthetic breast, she reflects that prosthesis “offers the empty comfort of ‘Nobody will know the difference.’ But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because I have lived it, and survived it…” (Lorde 61) Trying to mask the experience, or go “back to normal” reinforces the idea of a body that “should be” instead of the “body that is.”
The binary of able/disabled is as false as the binary of male/female. We supposedly “able-bodied” are fooling ourselves by thinking that our bodies are completely able and by those who are “disabled” are completely unable. Polarized thinking about ability is as limiting as gender stereotyping.
“Should I tattoo my scar? What would it say?” (Hacker 157)
My scar will say, “God help us all.”
Matuschka - "Tattoectomy"
Matuschka - "Tattoectomy"
My dad always tells us that it could be a matter of seconds and we could lose our ability to walk, see, hear, etc. When he was a junior in high school, he got in an accident in a piece of land-clearing equipment, nearly lost his leg and nearly bled to death in the mountain. He spent months relearning to walk, and even now walks without an “ankle;” his accident happened before the invention of artificial joints. The doctor managed to piece together bone fragments where my dad’s ankle was and now even today he has a huge mass of bone that connects his foot and leg. Most other people would not be able to walk, let alone work full-time and be on their feet for forty-plus hour work weeks. In a matter of seconds, his ability to move around was transformed.
            The boundary between “able” and “disabled” can be as fragile and transient as a few seconds: tripping over a shoe lace and falling, feeling a tiny, dense lump in your breast, or finally having the moment of clarity when you realize that the shadow that has been hanging over your shoulder for years doesn’t have to be there. As Audre Lorde closes her Cancer Journals, “I would never have chosen this path, but I am very glad to be who I am, here” (Lorde 77). I don’t know where I will be or what path I will end up on, you probably don’t either, but hopefully we will each find a way to accept our differences and transformations instead of hiding them.
Audre Lorde
Photos found at:



  • Photo of Nancy Mairs:



  • Photo of Mastectomy:



  • "Tattoectomy" by Matuschka:



  • Audre Lorde Quotation:



For more work relating to breast cancer by the artist Matuschka visit:
Works Cited:
Hacker, Marilyn. “Cancer Winter.” Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. Ed. Kenny Fries. New York: Plume, 1997. 154-159. Print.
Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1980. Print.
Mairs, Nancy. Waist-High in the World: A Life Among the Nondisabled. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. Print.