Rev Irene Monroe

I didn't wake up dead!

Filed By Rev Irene Monroe | January 08, 2008 1:35 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living
Tags: African-American, Audre Lorde, breast cancer, cancer treatment, women

I have breast cancer. I tell you this to better accept the blow that has struck me. I look at the horror and shock in your face of this news to assess whether I am experiencing this moment in real time or is this just merely the nightmare I cannot wake up from. And like the "Good Morning America" anchor Robin Roberts, who announced in August 2007 she had breast cancer, I, too, never thought I would be writing this.

And quite honestly, in the hurried and harried life I live, like most of us, who has time for this interruption. But now I must stop, see and assess my life differently as African American lesbian poet and activist Audre Lorde told all women confronted with breast cancer in The Cancer Journals before she succumbed to the disease in 1992. While there are a plethora of support groups and organizations nationwide for women like us there are however no instructional guides, road maps or formulas on how to personally to handle this ongoing health crisis, because it is about the particular woman herself.

“Each woman responds to the crisis that breast cancer brings to her life out of a whole pattern, which is the design of who she is and how her life has been lived. The weave of her every day existence is the training ground for how she handles crisis,” Lorde wrote.

The weave of my everyday existence for the past twenty years has been about social injustice concerning race, class, gender identities and expressions as it relates to religious intolerance. But now I take up another gauntlet: the politics of breast cancer, because this too is personal, exploring the function of cancer in a profit economy, the medical establishments' indifference to cultural and sexual differences and insensitivity to women’s health issues, the political and emotional implications of prosthetic breasts that hides the pain of amputation and disguises the epidemic of the disease, and the oftentimes dangerous reconstructive surgeries in the name of “quality of life” and “normal” femininity.

And our silence and invisibility on this issue will not protect me our other women.

In October 2004, two-time Grammy winner rock singer-songwriter and lesbian activist Melissa Etheridge was diagnosed with breast cancer. "Our society doesn't say the word cancer much," said Etheridge. When her grandmother was dying from breast cancer, no one even told Etheridge what was wrong. But Etheridge refused to remain silent or invisible with the disease. At the 2005 Grammy Awards, Etheridge made a return to the stage bald from chemotherapy to perform a tribute to Janis Joplin. Etheridge was praised not only for her performance but also for courage.

With any illness, you look for spiritual sustenance. But be leery of some of the self-help books and New Age Religions on the market, because they too can make you go in hiding with their “blame the victim” philosophies that will flog you as painfully as self-flagellation and the expected fire the brimstone theologies

Case in point: Louise Hay, renown metaphysical lecturer and author of the bestseller “Heal Your Body: The Mental Causes for Physical Illness and the Metaphysical Way to Overcome Them." Hay espouses a “blame-the-victim” philosophy concerning breast cancer. She writes that breast problems are a refusal to nourish the self because it is about putting everyone else first and being over mothering. While it is true that there is a correlation between "disease" in the mind and disease in the body, the bigger question should be - Why with all the advances made in breast cancer research are there so many women across race, class, education, sexual orientations being diagnosed with breast cancer today? And at younger ages? Is there an environmental link?

But, as Lorde stated it best “The idea that the cancer patient should be made to feel guilty about having had cancer, as if in some way it were all her fault for not having been in the right psychological frame of mind at all times to prevent cancer, is a monstrous distortion of the idea that we can use our psychic strengths to help heal ourselves. This guilt trip many cancer patients have been led into (you see, it is a shameful thing because you could have prevented it if only you had been more...) is an extension of the blame-the-victim syndrome. It does nothing to encourage the mobilization of our psychic defenses against the very real forms of death that surrounds us. It is easier to demand happiness than clean up the environment."

For example, there is a correlation between environmental pollutants and breast cancer. These pollutants interact in the environment and in our bodies contributing to an epidemic of chronic illnesses. “We call this Toxic Trespass. We did not consent for chemicals known to cause cancer and other illnesses to enter our bodies,” said Deborah Forter, of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition. These pollutants are in our air, foods, water, schools, workplaces and homes, like the lifetime exposure to pesticides from home use, and personal care products containing endocrine disruptors and other controversial compounds that have been marketed to both black and white women in popular women’s magazines since the 1950’s.

According to the American Cancer Society, Every three minutes, a woman in the U.S is diagnosed with breast cancer. It is the most common cancer among women, and about 178,480 women will be found to have invasive breast cancer in 2007. Because of the disparity in health care African-American women are more likely to die from the disease although more white women are diagnosed with it. Being a lesbian or bisexual woman does not increase your risk for breast cancer, but risk factors like fear of coming out to health care providers, less access to health insurance, and having fewer doctor visits for mammograms and professional breast exams will increase your chances. To address the homophobia life-threatening illnesses lesbian, bisexual and transwomen are likely to face in our health care system the Mautner Project was founded in 1990 following the death of Mary-Helen Mautner in 1989 of breast cancer.

As each day goes by I get a tad stronger facing this daunting health crisis. On Dec. 12 I was scheduled for a lumpectomy to be performed on my left breast, but it was canceled. Late afternoon on Dec. 11 I got a call from the surgical oncologist informing me that the results from my breast MRI showed two more suspicious lumps that might be cancerous and would make a difference between my having a lumpectomy, the removal of one cancerous lump in the breast, or a mastectomy, the removal of the entire breast. On Dec. 12 instead of the planned operation of a lumpectomy a biopsy was performed on each lump that had me on the table for two hours. But on Friday, Dec. 14 the results came in and those two lumps were benign. Hallelujah!!! I was then scheduled to have my lumpectomy operation to remove the cancerous tumor on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve.

And the good news now is I'm up! I didn't wake up dead but I woke up still suspicious as to why so many women are confronted with this disease. I got the report from my surgical oncologist that my nodes are negative. Yippee! So this is what I know so far on this journey: My cancer is Stage 1, my nodes are negative, my tumor is the size of a blueberry and there is no sign of metastasis. Whew! This is perhaps as good as it gets for a person diagnosed with breast cancer.

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Rev Irene,

Thank you for sharing your experience - your very personal experience, on this post. I appreciate how you acknowledge the magical thinking us women fall prey to, of our invincibility - our belief it won't happen to us. Of course it can, and as you mention, it does for someone new every three minutes. And then when it does...blaming is certainly no solution - be it the victim or anyone/anything else.

Waking up. So many things in life wake us up - though none, I think, as much as looking our mortality in the mirror. I was relieved to read at the end of your post that you were clear for the two additional lumps.

I wish you health, aliveness, joy, and a speedy and thorough recovery from this unexpected alarm sounding in your life.


Thank you so much for sharing this very personal story.

Thank you also for mentioning Louise Hay. I used to go to her Hay Rides in West Hollywood during the horrendous second wave of AIDS - and while I enjoyed her visualizations and the spirituality and community she created among so many who felt like rejected lepers, I used to SCREAM about the "you are to blame" part that used to just crush people whose AIDS would overtake them.

I also appreciate your mentioning Melissa - who was/is very inspiring.

But mostly I appreciate how honest and strong and forthright you have always been and will continue to be. My favorite Audre Lorde quote - which you embody - is: "When I dare to be powerful -- to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."

Thank you and take care -
Karen Ocamb

Jen Jorczak Jen Jorczak | January 8, 2008 7:27 PM

Really happy to hear the great prognosis, Reverend!

Certainly the intersection of the environment and our health needs to be further explored.

Thank you for such a personal and moving story. I am happy to hear of your positive prognosis and wish you the best!

Thank you again for sharing this with us...

My cancer is Stage 1, my nodes are negative, my tumor is the size of a blueberry and there is no sign of metastasis

Which means your odds of long-term survival are indistinguishable from the rest of the population.


Now can I collapse in a screaming heap now, please?

Thank you for a very moving post.

Thank you for sharing this. And best wishes...

Thanks for sharing your experiences so openly with the rest of us, Rev.

Cathy Renna Cathy Renna | January 9, 2008 9:40 AM

Rev. Irene

so good to hear the news and update - you have been in our thoughts and prayers since December

thank you for sharing your story


Having listened once to a person who's therapist shook her head and said, well, all that stress ended up somewhere...

I really appreciate your quote from Lourde. And the nonsmoker who gets lung cancer? the vegan with stomach cancer? The disease is bad enough. Screw the blame.

And go after the pharmecutical companies- ever wonder about the profit made on cancer? enormous. some think cancer might be curable but it's too damn lucrative to keep it lethal.

Having listened once to a person who's therapist shook her head and said, well, all that stress ended up somewhere...

I think there's something to this, actually. I'm not saying blame the person for their stress levels, I'm thinking more of society's effects on our health. With American stress levels shooting through the roof, environmental pollution at record levels, and everyone and their brother using anti-bacterial everything (which lowers our immune system and increases bacterial strength through survival of the fittest), is it any surprise that diseases like cancer and mental disorders keeps rising at an astronomical rate?

I don't think a single person is responsible for the state of America's health. I think we all are collectively.

That said, I wish you a speedy recovery, Rev Irene. You've been in my prayers since you told me of your diagnosis.

Rev. Irene Monroe | January 9, 2008 1:01 PM

There is a definite correlation between the stressors in and on our lives and our mental and physical well being. And, at least, according to Prevention Magazine these stressors do create "dis-ease" in our bodies manifesting into physical symptoms and even life-threatening illnesses. However, the problem, in my opinion, with much of a particular school of thought within New Age Religion and Thought is that it comes up with a creative and new way to see a problem yet it offers a very conservative answer repackaged as enlightenment. If we are only looking at individuals and not the systemic structures and the environments they live and move in and out of we place the cause of the illness solely on the person, implying he or she brought it on him or herself. When this sort of messaging get theologized or romanticized as I often see in New Age Thought we have a repackaged fundamentalism evolving.