Cancer in Two Voices

Reconfiguring Breast Cancer Narratives as Collaborative and Communal in Sandra Butler's & Barbara Rosenblum's Cancer in Two Voices

How to Cite

Nadler, J. (2001). Cancer in Two Voices: Reconfiguring Breast Cancer Narratives as Collaborative and Communal in Sandra Butler’s & Barbara Rosenblum’s Cancer in Two Voices. M/C Journal, 4(3).
Vol. 4 No. 3 (2001): Sick
Published 2001-06-01

I am not afraid to say
I am dying
but I do not want to do it
looking the other way (Lorde 48)

In this poem, written by Audre Lorde shortly before her death from breast cancer, Lorde seems to echo the sentiments of Butler and Rosenblum in their collaborative cancer narrative, Cancer in Two Voices, which deals with the experience of disease and dying. Yet in representing their experience of cancer collaboratively, Butler and Rosenblum not only avoid "looking the other way," but construct a text with which they can look to - and garner support from - each other, as well as a larger community. In Cancer in Two Voices Sandra Butler and Barbara Rosenblum necessarily transgress and re-approach dominant metaphors (or "embellishments") of breast cancer and disease by presenting us with a "cancer narrative" which is written collaboratively, in two voices. Consequently, this text presents the experience of breast cancer in the voices of both the "survivor" and "victim," the "healthy" and "ill," the "object" and "subject." In their vacillation between the "I" and the "we," Butler and Rosenblum simultaneously support and resist dominant representations of breast cancer as a terrifying, dichotomizing, solitary condition. In her introduction, Butler describes breast cancer as "a shared epidemic - a collective experience" (iv), indicating from the start that the "two voices" which invoke and involve their community in the experience of cancer consciously resist solitude in favour of solidarity. In choosing to construct their narrative in two voices, Butler and Rosenblum attempt to approach and reconfigure an illness that has been repeatedly figured as isolating and taboo as, rather, sacred and communal.

One of the most evident ways in which Butler and Rosenblum implicate the reader in a community which can no longer remain "at a safe distance" from the disease is by linking together traumatic experiences and images of breast cancer victims, Holocaust Survivors, and AIDS victims. The cancer narrative itself is prefaced by a section entitled "Coming Home - 1983" which evokes images of Holocaust survivors and discusses their sense of Jewish identity. Foreshadowing her own experience of a scarred body on the beach, Barbara describes the Holocaust survivors that she met: "I went to the beach with them and saw their scarred bodies...they excavated the flesh of my living relatives" (6). Later, on vacation with Sandy, Barbara goes swimming naked: "Freedom, complete freedom for my mutilated body. Freedom to swim, to move, to announce to the world I am whole in spirit if not in form, with an inkling of wholeness in my new form. Sandy and I snuggled in the water, her body unbelievably comforting and close to mine. Glorious freedom painted on her face as well" (73). In this image, although Rosenblum refers to her "mutilated body," the image is overtaken by that of a couple, comforted by each other's bodies. In this way, she heals the scars and indicates how others might heal their scars. It is interesting, however, that this special moment of comfort between two lovers occurs while Sandy and Barbara are in another "element."

In many ways, the double-voiced narrative of Cancer in Two Voices acts as a collaboration (i.e. an act of treason) against the patriarchal, in stitutional powers which traditionally generate and control the dominant metaphors and treatments of breast cancer. Rosenblum and Butler transfer the role of the "oppressor" or "enemy" onto the male doctors as well as the disease itself (53-54). In particular, Barbara expresses her anger at the medical establishment by chronicling her malpractice suit against Kaiser Hospital, which failed to diagnose her cancerous tumor sooner. Thus, Butler and Rosenblum transform the patriarchal institution of medicine into a force which is as culpable as the cancer itself.

Marcella Paul explains that "an outstanding characteristic of the illness is the secretiveness which has been associated with it. The presence of cancer is often denied or concealed by both cancer victims and their doctors, and this secrecy suggests that the illness is viewed as dirty and evil as well as painful and life-threatening" (32-33). Furthermore, since the breast cancer 'victim' is identified with the disease itself, she (her very identity) becomes denied, concealed, "dirty." Thus, another way in which Butler and Rosenblum resist dominant approaches to cancer is to write frankly and openly about the disease and its effects. Rosenblum writes, "[t]he major identity change I made was my decision to be public with my cancer. I was going to enter it, use it, embrace it, and eventually incorporate it as part of me. I was going to write about it in my journals, in my articles. I was going to counsel women who needed help" (67). Rather than identifying the disease as 'outside' herself, Rosenblum resolves to immerse her identity in it and, in doing so, perhaps change the character of (and the way that women respond to) the disease itself. Similarly, Butler works to help "other women to see. To look into their lives without flinching or turning away" (99).

Just as Butler and Rosenblum bear witness to Barbara's disease, so too do they insist on the importance of "being seen - something that as a lesbian couple [they] have never taken for granted" - in their decision to have a ceremony of commitment (Butler 117). Perhaps, Butler and Rosenblum's inclusion of the dimensions of their lesbian relationship in the cancer narrative adds another layer of resistance against the dominant (i.e. phallic, patriarchal) taboos of cancer - another way in which Butler and Rosenblum rupture and re-figure the traditional modes of narration, images, and metaphors of disease. Julia Watson reads autobiographies "as acts not just of coming to voice but as negotiations in naming the unspeakable" (141); thus, Butler and Rosenblum 'speak' the 'unspeakable' on two accounts: their lesbian relationship and their experience of breast cancer.

There are times in the cancer narrative when the concept of "us" and of "community" which Butler and Rosenblum construct fails to console. As Barbara undergoes the pain of chemotherapy and advanced cancer, she writes that a "painful disentangling is necessary" for both her and Sandra. Despite their closeness, Barbara's ability to communicate with Sandra is impeded by her sense of isolation. Rosenblum writes, "I feel totally alone in my cancer. Alone in my agony. Alone in the pain" (95). Whereas Barbara expresses the solitary experience of being in her body, Sandra writes that "her body has become 'our' body" (172). This is one significant place where Butler's and Rosenblum's collaborative and communal paradigms break down. Rosenblum explains, "when I have sensations in my body, it's an unsharable experience . Even a private language such as I have with Sandy, is a self-contradiction. There cannot be private language . I observe myself trying to talk but am isolated in an imprisoned, solipsistic world, experiencing the terror, panic, and isolation because we believe in common language, common culture, common understandings" (129-130).

The physical pain, experienced by only one of the "two voices" interferes with Butler and Rosenblum's desire for commonalities. As a result, Rosenblum must express her experience in solitude - alone, despite Sandy's "wanting to be included" (169). Barbara acknowledges the truth in the dominant metaphors of cancer as isolating, but juxtaposes it with a sense of connectedness. Although her belief in their connectedness has been shaken by her unbearable loneliness, Barbara asserts that this very loneliness connects her to the human condition, and therefore to a wider human community. Similarly, while Rosenblum describes her "unstable body" as "terrifying and confusing," resulting in a sense of helplessness, instability, and unpredictability (163), perhaps this journal/letter-writing - a chronicle of the instability of Barbara's body - is a means of gaining control and stability over her condition. It is a way of climbing out of her "crisis of meaning," of attempting to resist the sense that she is "no longer fluent in the language of [her] body, its signs and symbols" (165). In writing, Rosenblum looks "for new, stable ground" (166). She asserts, "[i]nstead of losing myself, instead of being consumed by this disease - and it can consume you if you don't watch it - instead, I grew. I turned it into a possibility for opening up to myself, for discovering, and for exploring new areas" (193).

Rosenblum's account of her mastectomy resists the sense of dreaded mutilation. Despite her "horrified" reaction the first time she looked at her chest - "I touched myself at least twenty-five times a day, looking for my breast. But it wasn't there anymore...I hated my body" - Barbara's horror wears off (36). In "Living in an Unstable Body," Rosenblum writes: "Losing a breast did alter my body image, as well as my body, but I never felt a diminishment of my femininity. My breasts were never the center of my womanness" (160). Furthermore, upon witnessing Deena Metzger's mastectomy scar, Butler describes "a tree of life tattooed over her scar, her chest now 'an illuminated manuscript'" (31). Perhaps Cancer in Two Voices is the same sort of "illuminated manuscript" as Metzger's tattoo - one which reinvents the image of the mastectomy as a body illuminated rather than mutilated. Rather than "look away" from the mastectomy scar, Sandra approaches it with tenderness, even kissing it: "my mouth moving along the ruffled skin of her scar brought tears to both our eyes" (31). Similarly, the cancer narrative that Butler and Rosenblum write together is a means of looking at, touching, and publicly displaying the scars (emotional and physical) that result from breast cancer. Thus, perhaps it is accurate to say, that in writing a cancer narrative in two voices, Sandra and Barbara's individual voices are raised to the level of collective experience and - in refiguring dominant metaphors - the cancer narrative is given alternate form and is introduced into the community rather than being excluded from it.

Author Biography

Janna Nadler