Book Review:Coming Out of Cancer

From the CHICAGO FREE PRESS, November 2, 2000

Uneven odds

Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic (Seal Press) edited by Victoria Brownworth Reviewed by Jennifer Vanasco, Contributing writer

Lesbians, says journalist Victoria A. Brownworth, are "the queer canaries in the cancer mine of the 21st century." We face discrimination from our doctors and because of that, we may be reluctant to get appropriate health care. We're poorer on average than the general population, which means that more of us live near or work in factories that expose us to toxic chemicals and fewer of us can afford health insurance. We smoke more. We drink more. We're less likely to have children before we're 30. Therefore, lesbians are at greater risk for cancer-one in three, as opposed to the ratio of one in eight for all women.


The trouble is today's researchers have extrapolated the higher risk from studies done in lesbian bars in the 1950s and 1960s, though current studies, still in progress, include questions about sexual orientation. And so, we are left with uncertainty, a dearth of information and terror. Brownworth's point is that the lesbian experience with cancer is a kind of test case, an early warning sign-like those misshapen frogs in Minnesota that signal something is very, very wrong. In response to her concern, Brownworth has edited a new anthology, "Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic." Thirty-two well-chosen pieces and a sharp, passionate introduction by Brownworth reflect on cancer in the lesbian community. There is poetry on the death of a lover by Adrienne Rich; an interview with Dr. Susan Love on the scope of cancer within our community; fiction by Katherine V. Forrest; excerpts from Audre Lorde's "Cancer Journals"; a comic strip from Alison Bechdel; a history of the lesbian cancer movement by Lynn Kanter and essays by many authors on how cancer has uprooted and changed their lives.

Combined, these pieces give us a balanced, informative and deeply emotional view of cancer's aftermath. "Cancer is the endless accident, the continual fall," activist Roberta L. Hacker writes in her essay, "As Luck Would Have It." "It has no end, at least no end that you can depend on." One of the most moving pieces is a poem by Teya Schaffer, who recounts the last days and death of her partner, cancer and AIDS activist Jackie Winnow. "I cross the threshold, carrying her like a bird in my mouth;/recognize the shape of people as I move towards an empty/room. .oldsite/A way is being made for the/widow, on its quiet I place my feet."

"Coming Out of Cancer" is not naively cheerful, nor is it depressingly morose. Cancer survivors and their loved ones will find their experiences reflected in these pages, yes, but those living outside the dark circle of cancer will find their hearts and minds touched as well.

Thanks to:

Cheryl B. Fields, MPH Health Promotion and Education Director The Mautner Project for Lesbians with Cancer 1707 L Street, NW, Suite 500 Washington, DC 20036 Phone: 202-332-5536 Fax: 202-332-0662

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