The Cancer Journals, published in 1980 by Spinsters Ink, was the first major prose work of African American poet and essayist Audre Lorde as well as one of the first books to make visible the viewpoint of a lesbian of color. In this collection, Lorde challenged traditional Western notions of illness and advocated women's ability, responsibility, and right to make decisions about their health.
A three-part piece developed from journal entries and essays written between 1977 and 1979, The Cancer Journals chronicles Lorde's experiences with her mastectomy and its aftermath. The first section of the book, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”, is a short address that was delivered by Lorde on a lesbians and literature panel of the Modern Language Association in 1977, soon after she had recovered from surgery that discovered a benign breast tumor. The second chapter, subtitled “A Black Lesbian Feminist Experience”, frankly describes the emotions experienced by one without role models through the course of diagnosis, surgery, and recovery. Central to this section is Lorde's recognition of her fierce desire to survive, to be a warrior rather than a victim, and her acknowledgment of the network of women whose love sustained her. The last chapter, entitled “Breast Cancer: Power vs. Prosthesis”, traces the development of Lorde's decision not to wear a prosthesis, a cosmetic device that she felt placed profit and denial of difference over health and well-being.
In each of the sections of the book, Lorde sought the strength that could be found at the core of the experience of cancer. Balancing her “wants” with her “haves,” she used this crisis to change patterns in her life. Rather than ignoring pain and fear, she acknowledged, examined, and used them to better understand mortality as a source of power. This tendency to face and metabolize pain Lorde saw as a particularly African characteristic. Death, she realized, had to be integrated with her life, loving, and work; consciousness of limitations and shared mourning of her loss increased her appreciation of living. Underlining the possibilities of self-healing, specifically the need to love her altered body, Lorde further stressed the importance of accepting difference as a resource rather than perceiving it as a threat. Perhaps most crucially, Lorde realized through the experience of cancer the necessity of visibility and voice. Seeing silence as a tool for separation and powerlessness, she understood the important function of her writing not only to free herself of the burden of the experience but also to share her experiences so that others might learn. Survival, she wrote, is only part of the task; the other part is teaching.
In 1981, The Cancer Journals won the American Library Association Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award. In 1982, Lorde published Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, a “biomythography” that she claimed was a “lifeline” through her cancer experience. Six years after her mastectomy, Lorde was diagnosed with liver cancer, the meaning of which she explored in the title essay of A Burst of Light (1988). That The Cancer Journals, Zami, and A Burst of Light, the three works that perhaps most directly reveal Lorde's deeply felt vulnerabilities and affirmations, were all published by small feminist presses and neglected by mainstream publishing firms attests to the work still to be done. Before she died, Lorde in an African naming ceremony took the name Gambda Adisa, meaning Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known.