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  • Libby Coyner

On Survival, Audre Lorde, and Five Year Cancerversaries

"I must let this pain flow through me and pass on. If I resist or try to stop it, it will detonate inside me, shatter me, splatter my pieces against every wall and person that I touch." -Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

Social media memories keeps reminding me of five years ago and of cancer. It's not that I've forgotten - cancer sits on my shoulder every single day, whispering in my ear that it could be around every corner. But it's helpful to be reminded of the things I survived since I was barely aware of them when they happened, a haze of medical appointments and fatigue and nausea and other side effects. The anniversary of the end of my period since, as my medical oncologist told me through a Lebanese accent, "they're going to fry your ovaries." I hadn't forgotten - the hot flashes and wilding hormones remind me every day, but no more menstrual cramps has been perhaps the only silver lining of all this. The anniversary of traveling to Berea, Kentucky, of being held in a circle of love by so many amazing archivists the week before cancer was cut out of me, of meeting bell hooks, and Audre Lorde through the incredible steward of her records, Holly Smith.

"Somedays, if bitterness were a whetstone, I could be sharp as grief." -Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

Where would I be without the work of Audre Lorde? She taught me about how to convert fear into anger, to use anger for change, and to become comfortable with being less likeable as an angry woman. I lost a lot during cancer - my asshole, my menstruation, my rose-colored glasses. I lost all my fucks I had left to give. The things that consumed me before getting sick - who approved of me, who liked me, whether I made people uncomfortable - took a back seat to the anger I have for myself and for the injustice we bear witness to every day. I have far less patience for the people who don't want to "get political," who look the other way in the face of unspeakable horrors, and who casually espouse ableism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other hateful politics and not see why I now refuse them my time and emotional labor.


"What is there possibly left for us to be afraid of, after we have death face to face with death and not embraced it? Once I accept the existence of dying, as a life process, who can ever have power over me again?" -Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

For me, cancer happened a the same time Donald Trump got elected president, and shortly after I finished chemo, I moved to the South. Y'all, it has been AN EDUCATION! So much learning, so much unlearning. I moved to a place where religion has such a stranglehold on progress, but also a place with so many BIPOC activists who are doing the incredible work of dreaming and writing a new world to work toward. I have been humbled by my own blind spots.


I got married in 2020, and soon after, the world went into pandemic. Shepherd and I have watched as science and health and consent have all been politicized in shocking ways, and the grief of this time has been unbearable as we've watched as historically baked-in health disparities caused by settler colonialism have ravaged the Navajo Nation and there has been so much loss in communities in Indian Country. Waves of grief. Then the news started coming out of discoveries of unmarked graves of those who didn't survive the residential school system in North America. More waves of grief. I'm forever grateful that my love's mother and grandmother both survived and taught Shepherd to survive too. We are both survivors. Between us, we have survived cancer, racism, homophobia, transphobia, settler colonialism, alcoholism, higher education, a Trump presidency, and so much grief. My accountability is to my partner, and to my community and chosen family, and I'm learning to use my voice. After all, Audre reminds us that, "When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak."

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