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In 1972, Susan Sontag was planning a work to be called “On Women Dying” or “Deaths of Women” or “How Women Die.” In her journal under the heading “material,” she wrote a list of eleven deaths, including the death of Virginia Woolf, the death of Marie Curie, the death of Jeanne d’Arc, the death of Rosa Luxemburg, and the death of Alice James.1 Alice James died of breast cancer in 1892 at the age of forty-two. In her own journal, James describes her breast tumor as “this unholy granite substance in my breast.”2 Sontag quotes this later in Illness as Metaphor, the book that she wrote after undergoing treatment for her own breast cancer, diagnosed in 1974 when she was forty-one.3
Illness as Metaphor is cancer as nothing personal. Sontag does not write “I” and “cancer” in the same sentence. Rachel Carson is diagnosed with breast cancer in 1960, at the age of fifty-three, while in the process of writing Silent Spring, among the most important books in the cultural history of cancer. Carson does not speak publicly of the cancer from which she dies in 1964.4 Sontag’s journal entries during cancer treatment stand out for how few there are and how little they say. The little they do say illustrates breast cancer’s cost to thinking, mostly as a result of chemotherapy treatments that can have severe and long-lasting cognitive effects. In February 1976, while undergoing chemotherapy, Sontag writes, “I need a mental gym.” The next entry is months later, in June 1976: “when I can write letters, then…”5
In Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 novel Valley of the Dolls, a character named Jennifer, afraid of mastectomy, dies by intentional overdose after her breast cancer diagnosis.6 “All my life,” Jennifer says, “the word cancer meant death, terror, something so horrible I’d cringe. And now I have it. And the funny part is, I’m not the least bit frightened of the cancer itself—even if it turns out to be a death sentence. It’s just what it’ll do to my life.” The feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, diagnosed with breast cancer in 1932, kills herself, too: “I have preferred chloroform to cancer.”7 Jacqueline Susann, diagnosed at forty-four, dies of breast cancer in 1974, the year Sontag is diagnosed.
In 1978, the poet Audre Lorde is also diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of forty-four. Unlike Sontag, Lorde uses the words “I” and “cancer” together, and does this famously in The Cancer Journals, which includes an account of her diagnosis and treatment and a call to arms: “I don’t want this to be a record of grieving only. I don’t want this to be a record only of tears.” For Lorde, the crisis of breast cancer meant “the warrior’s painstaking examination of yet another weapon.”8 Lorde dies of breast cancer in 1992.
Like Lorde, the British novelist Fanny Burney, who discovers her breast cancer in 1810, writes a first-person account of her mastectomy.9 Her breast is removed without anesthetic. She is conscious for the mastectomy’s duration: