BOOKMARKS; Confronting the Limits of Adult Power: Women Writers Wrestle with the Chaos of Cancer

By Pipher, Mary; Straus, Martha | Family Therapy Networker, November/December 1999 | Go to article overview

BOOKMARKS; Confronting the Limits of Adult Power: Women Writers Wrestle with the Chaos of Cancer


Pipher, Mary, Straus, Martha, Family Therapy Networker


Living on the Margins: Women Writers on Breast Cancer

Edited with an introduction by Hilda Raz

Persea Books. 308 pages. ISBN 0-892-55244-1

Reviewed by Mary Pipher

In America, one in eight women will get breast cancer, and by 2000, one million women will die annually from this disease. In 1972, Shirley Temple Black was the first public figure to speak openly about having a mastectomy. Betty Ford went public in 1977 about her own cancer and raised eyebrows by encouraging women to examine their breasts regularly. In the two decades since then, little has been written about the personal experience of having breast cancer. In Living on the Margins , a collection of poems and essays that editor Hilda Raz describes as "a shelter under construction," women articulate their experiences of breast cancer to help other women feel less alone and overwhelmed by the disease that most of us women fear the most.

All of the writers have had at least one breast removed because of cancer, and even though each responded to the diagnosis differently, they have much in common. "These writers are not heroic but efficient, efficient in their use of crisis to carry on their lives as writers," Raz writes. One of the contributors, Annette Williams Jaffe, describes her mother, who died of cancer, as "mad for hope and beauty." That can be said of all the women in this book. And all share a common prayer--"Please let me stay alive," as Janet Sternburg puts it.

Living on the Margins is a coming-of-age book, but it's a different age. While adolescence is coming into adult power, receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer is coming into the limits of adult power. Women in this book move from what essayist Susan Sontag called "the land of the well" to "the land of the sick." They are travel writers in a hostile new land, a land of pain and nausea and treatments that Susan Love, renowned cancer surgeon, describes as "slash, burn and poison." As Alicia Ostricker writes, "Without even knowing it, I have passed a threshold, crossed a border, become a permanent citizen in the nation of fear. It is as if a coat of ice has formed around me."

In Living on the Margins , 23 women write of their journey. Some share their shock after a cancer diagnosis. "The dreaded C word when applied to oneself for the first time is horrific. It feels like a death sentence for a crime one hasn't committed," Amy Ling explains. But all the women in this anthology resist letting the illness define them. Ultimately, they might lose to cancer, but they are not passive victims. There is an acceptance of fate, but also an insistence on carving out personal territory in which to live. "Between the forces against us within our own cells, and the forces of human nature acted out on the scale of human history, each of us is almost entirely helpless," Ostricker writes. "Although we can perhaps do little to heal either the world or ourselves, we can do something. Something is not the same as nothing." Elaine Greene voiced those sentiments when she told her husband she had cancer. "This disease is not going to be my vocation. So give me a kiss and let's do dishes."

The current president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, has urged psychologists to study strength, courage and joy, to focus on resilience rather than weakness. Living on the Margins could be a basic text for that study. These women wrestle victories from pain and personal growth from the chaos of cancer. As Pamela Posts puts it, "Cancer says to take up your broken self once again and, if you are able, fashion something even better than you had before--'before my visits began,' cancer says."

I had expected sorrow and anger in this collection. The surprise was the joy. Relationships grow more tender, the frost on the window more intricate and the fresh orange more welcome. Carole Simmons Oles noticed that juncos feed on dried lavender seeds. …

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