October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, though I imagine most of us are already relatively aware. One in eight women will have breast cancer. Pink is everywhere. It’s difficult to find a person who hasn’t been impacted by breast cancer on a personal level. In 2003, my mom was diagnosed. Radiation, a lumpectomy, and ten years later she was dubbed cancer free. When I finished my Ph.D. in 2009, I did a stint as a Research Assistant for a fabulous liturgical studies scholar working on a book that examined and created rituals for women with breast cancer. My task was researching everything written on breast cancer that intersected with feminism, womanism, religion, spirituality, and ritual.
Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals struck me profoundly. The critiques weighed heavy as a movement that began with destigmatizing breast cancer and offering solidarity to patients has transformed into a pinkified commodity. Whether it’s the lack of transparency in major breast cancer foundations, pinkification, the essentializing conversations that equate breasts with womanhood, lack of access to comprehensive health coverage, the role of the meat and dairy industry in increased risks of breast cancer, the talk of “surviving” and “fighting” as though those who don’t survive aren’t fighters, or the complete lack of representation of women of color in any pink marketing (seriously, do a google image search of “breast cancer headwraps” and feast your eyes upon an endless array of young, white women), breast cancer awareness has been commodified so that helping cancer patients is second to profit. Amidst these pink teddy bears delicately embroidered with the word “fighter,” one can only wonder what we can actually do and offer and create to be supportive of those with breast cancer. What rituals might we offer? What sacred spaces might we create? What is a feminist response? A spiritual response?
All of this research, critical thinking, and experience was actualized this summer. My mom’s cancer came back in August. On the sixth month anniversary of my brother’s death, she had a double mastectomy, which was made more complicated by the radiation from her first bout with cancer. It’s widely accepted among psychologists that the death of a child is one of the most traumatic events a person can suffer; there are some psychologists who contend that the stress associated with a child’s death can even trigger cancer. While I don’t know how such a claim can be substantiated, I do know that my mother’s body and soul have been ripped apart since she found her son’s dead body seven months ago. So, when she told me about her breast cancer coming back, I couldn’t help but think of him.
Because of the problematic nature of so much of the breast cancer industrial complex, I was at a loss for what to offer my mother. So, I penned these words before joining with my youngest brother to accompany her to the hospital for surgery:
I’ve struggled with what words to offer, what things I can do, what help or solace I can provide when grief and cancer combine. As an academic, author, and clergywoman, I’m supposed to have the language. I write the rituals, crafting words and actions of redemption and healing. Meaning making. But those are for other people. Even other people that I’ve loved. When it comes to my mom, my words are too finite. Nothing I can craft can cure cancer. Nothing I can say will bring Carl back. The voice that has rendered ritual, blessing, and theory now renders me silent. My hands are empty.
I think of how you’ve already lost a piece of yourself, a part so wholly and holy yours that he breathed and lived and tried for 33 years, until you found him, breathless and fallen. And now you are poised, on the six-month anniversary of that death, to lose another part of yourself. The part that nourished and fed all three of your children, filling us with the life, health, and vitality only a mother can provide. Because you are many beautiful and wonderful things, but for me, for us, you are, above all else, our mother. Yet, that vital piece of yourself will now be cut, severed from the rest of your body, a body that has grown and split to offer life to three children, that has ached and aged to give and comfort, nurture and embrace. Another piece of you will be gone. That is everything. And that is nothing.
For we can rationalize that it’s just the cancer they’re cutting away, that incisions bring health and healing. And this is true. And it is not. Because what is taken away must also be grieved. And your life is already too full of grieving. Mourn this loss. Because it is real. Know that pieces of yourself are here alongside you, two of your children overflowing with more gratitude than we can express. And those other pieces of yourself—your child and your breasts—are not gone, but scattered among the stars, silent witnesses of blood shed, milk spilled, your own body broken.
There will be times, I imagine, when it’s all just too much. When the grief and loss threatens to swallow you whole. If it is any solace, I invite you, then, to gaze at the stars and see tiny pieces of yourself sparkling in all their fragmented glory. Broken. Beautiful. Beloved. My mother.
Though the grief and loss are sometimes unbearable, my mom is recovering well. So, when I returned home to Hawai’i, I knew that I must canonize a Breast Cancer Goddess into the Holy Women Icons sainthood on her behalf. Because pink is so widely associated with breast cancer, I couldn’t escape it in iconography. And what resonated so profoundly with me as I’ve witnessed my mother grapple with these losses is her resilience. So, with arms flung wide, the hearts of all women who have faced breast cancer—living and dead—cry out to us:
but soul intact,
her resilient heart beat
with hope, longing,
I will not speak of surviving and fighting, but I will speak of hope. Wherever you are and whoever you may be, may the Breast Cancer Goddess offer you glimpses of the hope you need to thrive.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is the Founder and Creative Director of the Holy Women Icons Project. She holds a Ph.D. in Art and Religion. A professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, she is the author of seven books. As an author and professional artist, she is creating a retreat center with her wife and child on Hawai’i Island as a part of the Holy Women Icons Project non-profit.