Women’s Breast Cancer Poetry: Voice, Identity, Contingency and Death

Johanna Shapiro, Ph.D.

Breast cancer has been described as a biographical disruption that catches women between longing for what was (life before cancer) and fear of what will be (assaults on the body, pain, uncertainty and even death) (Martino and Freda 622). Cancer alters the relationship between the woman’s body, the woman’s sense of self and the surrounding world (Smit, Coetzee, Roomaney et al., 231; Herndl 221). How women process and interpret the experience of breast cancer – with its uniquely gendered, nurturing and sexualized associations – becomes a revealing exercise in finding one’s voice amidst the pressures to narrate experience in certain societally and medically approved ways. In particular, I became interested in the disjuncture between the messages implicit and explicit in the medical model, and the points of view and understanding of women actually undergoing the experience of breast cancer.

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