Yes, folks, it's October again; the joyous time of year when "awareness" of breast cancer is being sold, world-wide, to consumers of anything from hair-dryers to teddybears, water to yoghurt. I've written elsewhere (a long time ago) about the insidious association of shopping with medical research and the much-vaunted "awareness" of the disease (anything with "Shop for the Cure" associated with it is deeply problematic, in my view); and others have written eloquently and knowledgeably about the irony of the miniscule donations made to breast cancer research from companies whose products may well contain carcinogens, to say nothing of the dreadful infantilisation, eroticisation and sexualisation of women and the breast ("saving second base!") that characterises many of these campaigns. If you're interested in reading more in this vein, check out Breast Cancer Action or Twisty's recent post, with its excoriating critique of the recent Facebook "it" campaign. There is also this celebrated essay by Barbara Ehrenreich.
But this post is for my new friend: let us call her Hypatia. I met her earlier this year, and while we got on very well, we have become much closer since she was diagnosed with breast cancer, very recently. It's an email correspondence, as she lives in a far northern country. We have much in common. We both love our academic work; and both reeled to see how a diagnosis like this cut such a swathe through our sense of self as thinking, writing women. Her progress through treatment is going to be rather longer than mine, I'm sorry to say, as she is starting with chemotherapy, then moving on to surgery, radiotherapy and hormonal therapy; so she is looking at about a year of being — if not sick all the time — then acutely under the care of the medical profession. She has had her first two doses of chemotherapy: her hair is falling out; her brain has gone mushy, she says; and she had a violent anaphylatic reaction to the first dose. She has a bruised hand from the second; and her ankles and toes are painful. Other side-effects, too. But she doesn't want to join a support group and "have her colours done."
Like me, Hypatia was also diagnosed around October; and has been somewhat spooked, I think, by the horror stories you hear around this time. For me, it was poor Belinda Emmett, who died the week I was having my surgery, the night Kylie Minogue made her first return to the stage after a year away. (This means, yes, I am a week away from my fourth-year mammogram and ultrasound next week: fingers crossed...) There is also the gruesomely normative femininity that is so often the only one available on so many commercial "awareness" sites. We're "aware", already, alright? And some of us are smart and clever, and miss our work and our colleagues when we are sick.
I feel very far away from my friend. And I know you would like her, and wish her well. So this is my October gesture. I'm inviting you to send a message of support to Hypatia in my comments box. Or to suggest something she might like to read or listen to (because there will be days when she won't be able to read a sentence). Or your favourite thinking woman's blog (don't worry if you can't make the link work). Let's put together a collection of things a sick and smart woman (truly, when I met her, she was blazing with intelligence and smartness) might like to read. I don't mean necessarily hi-falutin', either: someone loaned her a boxed set of Little House on the Prairie, and it seems to have gone down a treat, though I bet she just dipped in and out of it, because that's all you can do. But there'll be times over the next year or so when she'll be feeling stronger. And perhaps the list we make might be something you can send to your friends should they ever be in similar straits. This seems to me a good thing to do in breast cancer October.