Cancer log 45: Is it…

Cancer log 45: Is it weird to think all my life has been preparing me to write about my cancer?

I started my blog in December 1995, but we didn't call them blogs back then; they were online diaries, and mine was one of the first. There was barely a web at that point; we had just graduated from newsgroups and bulletin boards, and in college in 1993, I was the only English major who actually used her e-mail. I had tried to keep personal diaries before, but they'd fizzled out quickly -- it was only once I had an audience that I found the motivation to keep writing. We didn't even have public comments back then -- if people wanted to say something about what I'd written, they had to e-mail me directly.

Thankfully, they did e-mail me, and also sent me postcards -- I got the most amazing postcards back then, from soldiers abroad during Desert Storm, from scientists in Antarctica. I have a box full of them still. These people, mostly men, had found my web page, generally because they'd read the erotica I was writing back then, in my early 20s. They liked it enough to find a card, scribble an enthusiastic note, address it, stamp it, and send it on its way, which was incredibly motivating to a young writer very unsure of her place in the world, a young brown girl who kept writing things that really upset her parents.

I felt utterly compelled to write about sex back then. Sex was an area of intense conflict, desire and shame and anger and fear and the hopeless, desperate wish that I could somehow make both myself and my parents happy, all mixed together. I was dating and having sex, but worse, with white boys, and worse, sometimes with girls, and worst of all, I didn't even want to be monogamous, not even a little bit... You can just imagine.

So it all came out in a sometimes frantic need to write it out, mostly in poetry and fiction, camouflaged because it was easier to say it behind that veil. But still, on the page, out in the world. People knew that I knew about sex because I wrote it and put it out there. I talked about my work at the dinner table too -- and found, interestingly enough, that people who were initially shocked and resistant (remember, this was around 1995 and I was only twenty-three, and you had to go to sleazy sex stores if you wanted to buy erotica back then), quickly jumped into the conversation too. Once one person starts talking about sex, calmly and matter-of-factly, almost everyone else wants to talk about sex too. (Try it at your next dinner party; it can be surprisingly fun.)

You wouldn't think erotica would connect to cancer writing, but I think it does, in a couple of ways. For one, when you try to write erotica, you quickly realize that English is sadly barren of good language for the task -- the various terms for body parts tend to be clinical, or crude, or vague, or just silly. But you try to work with them anyway -- I usually asked myself what words my character would have used, if she were talking about her own bits and bobs, and then I used those words in the story, even if they made me wince.

(Sometimes when I taught people how to write sex scenes, I'd have them do an exercise -- we'd throw a lot of words out into the room (which, of course, meant they had to actually say the words, which was very difficult at first for most, but once the ice was broken, it got much easier), and then write them down into categories -- crude, silly, sexy, etc. It quickly becomes clear that what one person thinks crude or silly is the height of sexiness to someone else. Another exercise, courtesy of Carol Queen, is to simply stand in the bathroom, look at yourself in the mirror, and say the words out loud. Watch yourself, saying these taboo words. Ask yourself why they should be hard to say.)

Writing erotica, I became a lot more comfortable with various words, which was helpful for fiction, and now it turns out that it's also much easier to write about breast cancer, if you can comfortably write the word 'breast.' 'Nipple' is useful too, both for talking clinically about nipple-preserving surgery, and talking emotionally about the fact that you're worried that you're going to miss your nipples and the fun you've had with them. (The clinical turns sexual very fast sometimes.) That particular barrier to writing about breast cancer was easy for me to climb over; I'd had lots and lots of practice.

(I'll pause to note here that prostate cancer isn't nearly as socially challenging to talk about. Oh, the prostate may not be typical dinner table conversation, nor the penis and testicles, but I'd argue that there's less public shame that arises when discussing male body parts and male desire. Women's bodies are still that which must not be named -- exceedingly liberal people still get embarrassed talking about menstruation, for example (myself included).

This silencing around women's bodies has had immense and long-term and ongoing consequences for women's health, in terms of research, treatment, etc., of course. I would be interested to see how much funding is allocated for, say, ovarian cancer, as opposed to breast cancer. And if the latter is much more strongly funded (factoring into account how common both are in the general population), then I have to wonder how much of that is due to straight men really really liking women's breasts.)

So the erotica writing made me more comfortable talking about women's bodies -- and the blogging made me more comfortable talking about my life in public, even the bits other people found embarrassing, off-putting, inappropriate. Those elements are connected too. My parents expected, understandably, that I would follow a certain path: college, an arranged marriage, career and children. It's a good path for many, but I knew from a young age that it wasn't quite the path for me, which led to a lot of fighting, and several hard years for me, for them (and for my sisters too). Writing helped me process those emotions; I channeled them into poetry and fiction, often into thinly-veiled stories of young women negotiating their early romantic and sexual relationships.

Eventually, those became my first book, and by the time that was published, I was in an MFA program, firmly on the path to becoming a writer. It's the skills I developed in graduate school that combined with the long practice of talking openly about my life to the world (1995 to 2015 means that it'll be twenty years of blogging come December) and with the experience of writing explicitly about sex and women's bodies. All of those together are what make it possible, even relatively easy, for me to write about my breast cancer now. I don't need to think much about the craft elements of writing -- I studied those for years, and practiced those skills in blogging, but also in essays and fiction and poetry. So that now, when there is something within me that wants to be said, it comes out quickly, easily. (Most of the time, anyway. Sometimes even artfully.)

Mostly, though, it's not the writing skills that are the hardest part, I think, or even the talking explicitly about women's bodies. It's the exposure of the illness -- the fear and anger and pain. Writing memoir is its own challenging thing, a different dimension from fiction and poetry, and that's what this is, even if we frame it as blogging, which feels lighter, more casual. But every time you go on Facebook or Twitter and reveal something about your life, even something as mundane as what you had for dinner, you're writing memoir. You're choosing to expose something of yourself to the public, and risking disapproval, judgement.

Many people do prefer to be private about health matters. Maybe they don't want the sympathetic eyes of the world; maybe they prefer to go through the experience alone, or only with those who are close to them. Maybe they're afraid that strangers won't understand the ugliness that suffering sometimes brings. If it's the latter, I just want to note that if you're keeping silent because you're afraid of what people will think of your weakness, your sadness, your struggle -- well, there are some cruel people in the world, there is no doubt. But most people, in my experience, are tremendously compassionate and kind. I have been amazed at how gentle people have been with my various flaws and failures.

Not all of my life is transparent -- I do try to protect others' privacy as much as I can. Kevin's, my kids, my parents' and sisters', my students'. But for me personally, I have been rewarded so many times for my efforts to expose what is normally kept hidden. And so I will end this with a gentle suggestion. If there is something you are wanting to write, wanting to say, and you are holding back because you're afraid of what people will think -- well, Dorothy Allison says, (in her essay collection Skin: Talking About Sex, Class, and Literature), that the best writing comes when you're terrified, and you write it anyway. I have generally found that to be true.

In my experience, you'll feel better after writing it too, even if you never do decide to show it to the world. (Nobody says you have to!) I'm not going to claim that writing saved my life -- but it certainly changed my life, changed me, and I think so much for the better. It might be the main thing that gets me through this cancer treatment too. Well, that and my family. And you guys too.

I wouldn't bother writing if it weren't for you folks taking the time to read. Thanks so much for listening.

3 thoughts on “Cancer log 45: Is it…”

  1. Ovarian cancer is much more rare than breast cancer. However, I think it is much more likely to be fatal if and when it does occur. One would think that these facts ought to cancel each other out, as far as funding goes.

    But, isn’t the funding for breast cancer research mostly driven by women activists, with only some help from men?

    I wish I had been reading your blog since 1995, but I was not introduced to it until 1997 or 1998. I have gone back and read it all, finally. I may also be the author of the comment on the earliest dated entry, added long after the entry itself. I am not sure how to find it now. It was on entry number 1000, but I think the numbering protocol has changed.

  2. Compulsive searching by hand has located my comment on entry number 1000. The entry is dated 10 January 2003. The comment is dated April 28 2003. I think the beginning of comments’ being allowed was between these two dates.

    I also love your writing!

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