- Irene Hernández Velasco
- BBC Mundo
American poet and essayist Anne Boyer was just 41 when she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, one of the deadliest cancers in existence and which requires very aggressive treatment.
A single mother, she made a modest living teaching and didn’t know much about breast cancer at the time …
She says she has learned that capitalist logic often considers that those with cancer deserve it in part: for eating too many fatty sausages and not enough broccoli, for drinking too many beers, for not going for a run in the morning. ..
She also found that cancer is surrounded by false myths and stereotypes, such as that a positive attitude can help cure it.
She realized that the language used to talk about cancer is perverted, because surviving cancer is not winning a race and dying is not losing it.
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But above all, she says, she discovered the brutality and capitalist dynamics that govern the healthcare system in the United States, one of the richest countries in the world …
After undergoing a double mastectomy, and barely able to stand, Anne Boyer was sent home without being able to spend a single night in the hospital, as is the case for approximately 45% of women who experience such operation in the United States.
With the drainage bags still sewn to her chest, ten days after her operation, she had resumed her teaching job.
All of this, she says, has helped her reflect on mortality and gender policies related to health, on pain and suffering according to social status and gender, on patriarchal, racist, militarist and capitalist logics. linked to gender-based diseases such as breast cancer …
The result of all this is his book “The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care”, published in Spanish by Sexto Piso.
His book, which received the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for the essay, is an exceptional text that combines autobiography, philosophy, poems, ancient texts, data, statistics and scientific studies.
BBC Mundo spoke with the author, who was attending the “HAY de Querétaro” festival, Friday, September 3, 2021.
In “The Undying”, you reflect on mortality, a subject that is almost taboo today, especially in the United States. Why don’t we want to think about death and why should we prepare for it instead?
America has a curious relationship with death. Its films, TV shows and video games are filled with splendid depictions of violent deaths. Corpses litter our screens, and they are sold to us for entertainment.
Our language is often so crude and violent, our military and our industries are notorious death dealers around the world.
And yet, when it comes to death itself – not its cinematic version – we hide it, sanitize it, externalize it, because it seems to be at odds with the doctrine of positivity at all. price.
If we don’t think about death intentionally and realistically, we end up with these harmful and manipulative versions.
About 50% of the population in industrialized countries has or will develop cancer. However, there are still many myths and stereotypes about cancer. Which one is the worst?
The worst myth is that people with cancer get it because they somehow caused it themselves.
In recent decades, the idea has also spread that if a person is positive and has a good attitude about life, they can beat cancer. Why do you say this is a deeply perverse idea?
Because it is not true. Attitudes don’t give us cancer, nor do they cure it.
The attitude myth mainly boils down to imposing a gender norm on society, like telling women to smile when they walk down the street.
In “The Undying” you also explore the relationship between capitalism and cancer. The capitalist system often argues that the rich are rich because they deserve it, because they worked harder than the poor. Has capitalism imposed the same logic on cancer?
American capitalism has imposed an insidious logic of extreme and corrosive individualism that puts everyone in competition against everyone, and sometimes people against themselves.
The sick, failing and ceasing to be “productive” and competitive capitalist entities, are considered losers, unless they survive, and from this point of view, it is the dead who are the losers, and the losers. survivors are the appropriate capitalist subjects.
In the capitalist system, everything is considered a choice, so is cancer. This rhetoric hides the fact that in reality much of what happens to us is not the result of our choice, it is a set of shared conditions, historical forces, social political structures.
But when this is hidden from us, we become so disturbed that we start to believe that each of us has control even over the pathological division of our cells.
Cancer is better known today than ever and medicine has made great strides, but paradoxically, for many cancer patients in the United States today it is very difficult to access adequate treatment. Why has the healthcare industry become so inhuman?
The answer is simple: profit. During the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare workers seem to have come under the destructive pressures of this profit-driven model like never before: mental health crises, burnout, etc.
If American medicine doesn’t serve patients and work for doctors, nurses, and other workers, the question is, who is it for? And who decided that it should be?
I hope that one of the consequences of this crisis will be an outcry over the conditions that make healthcare impossible for both patients and workers.
Why don’t you love the pink breast cancer patient support ribbon? What is the problem ?
I’m not opposed to the solace and solidarity that can be found in using a visual symbol to unite those struggling with a disease, but the pink ribbon culture takes on a surge of genuine support and positive and perverts it into a structure of exploitation and profit.
We don’t need pink ribbons on equipment… or on consumer goods made with dangerous chemicals. As soon as our pain is turned into a product, we have to say no.
In your book, you admit that in classic cancer texts, like those by Susan Sontag or Audre Lorde, you didn’t find what you were looking for when you yourself were diagnosed with breast cancer. Why haven’t these books helped you?
They helped me, but what I didn’t find there was an account of the contemporary version of cancer: the disease as it is experienced in the world of information, of screens, under extreme profit forces driving health care in the United States.
In writing this book, I hope it will join other existing books as a testimony of our time.
During your illness, you have found a lot of support in the YouTube videos of other women with triple negative breast cancer. Why did these videos comfort you?
It’s pretty hard to explain the effect these people I didn’t know had on me, and that’s why writing this part of the book was especially difficult for me.
I think many people with serious illnesses have had the experience of learning from others who share their own experiences on social media.
Bloggers gave me an education that no doctor or nurse could give me, an education about feelings, about how to die and how to live.
Why do you think solidarity and the sharing of grief are so important?
I think if we don’t share the pain we risk being destroyed by it because we risk mistakenly believing that we are alone. Pain tends to lock us into ourselves, unless we recognize that it is a shared experience.
I recently heard a Buddhist prayer: “Let me have enough suffering to awaken in me the deepest possible compassion and wisdom,” and this may be the heart of the matter.
Sharing a pain, a suffering, helps us to transform it into compassion, to understand the collective experience of the human being.
This article is part of the “Hay Festival Querétaro digital”, a gathering of writers and thinkers which took place from September 1 to 5, 2021.
We want to thank the writer of this post for this amazing material
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