The Gift of Cancer

I gave this speech on Tuesday, October 26 at The Women's Conference in Long Beach, CA.

It happens like this The doctor walks towards me His face is ashen He says we have found something It does not look good There is a trap door in the seat of the waiting room And I am falling And as I fall I hear The echo of him saying Cat scan As big as a mango We can't be sure This falling goes on for days Even though I appear to be walking And giving speeches and riding on airplanes I am falling As the new doctor at the new hospital says it says CANCER As I wait to hear where it's coming from And where it's gone As I get pricked and probed and punctured I am falling As they first say it is not in my liver And then later they can't be sure Falling Until they drug me and wheel me off For nine hours And when I wake up I am in a new country Nothing is familiar Because the possibility of not dying Is gone Because I am now living in the land of the sick Turns out my being a vegetarian-sober-nonsmoker-activist has not protected me at all

The surgeon tells me he has done 1,000 operations and he has never seen anything like it Then he uses the word fistula And uterus

First thing I think of course is Congo I knew from the first time I went to Panzi hospital in Bukavu I stood in the place that felt like an open barn In the place where 200 women sat on benches Their wounded heads Their canes Their sweat The strong smell of pee and shit from their fistulae From the holes their rapist pierced into their bodies, tearing them apart I knew from that first moment When I looked into their faces And saw the crimes of this century burning in their eyes 500,000 raped women 500,000 vaginas violated 500,000 bodies massacred 500,000 wombs destroyed I had no way to protect myself From the hugeness of the atrocity From the insanity of this disgrace It rolled over me like a tsunami of pain and took me Took me took me I have never come back And I never will And I knew those women now owned me Have me There is no other place I could ever be No other fight that is not this fight It's in your uterus The tumor of rape That is wild across the world The tumor of rape That exchanges women's bodies for the price of a cell phone Or gold or diamonds Or anything that can be extracted and stolen from their land The tumor of rape that began growing in me when I was only five and now has matured into something the size of a mango That's what the doctor said Which of course is the fruit of the Congo The most delicious in the world The women of Congo are in my body First gift I realize -- I am not alone I have imagined what it feels like to lose your uterus or your ovaries And inside the emptiness of my missing womb There is space There is a hunger To just be still Cancer stopped me From running Striving Trying to prove my worth It stopped me From apologizing for the truth

It made me stay in one place For 6 months It brought me back my sister It allowed me to commune with my friends It forced me to take in love And be cared for, which made me human It took away the privilege of the well And made me a patient It taught me a new kind of pain And now I see even more clearly the sick, the poor, the raped and the oppressed and I know we are family And the majority And that what divides us is illusion Created by our refusal to feel Maintained and manipulated by those in power And I know I almost died and that it was only a couple of inches And a few months that kept me here And I now live with death as my companion And sometimes she scares me and sometimes she comforts me But mainly she inspires me to be braver And I no longer have any desire to be invincible Because it isn't possible Or accurate I am vulnerable and porous And outraged and crazy-happy and alive And I know what care is And what it isn't How someone can stick you with a needle And never see you Or they can stick you and take the time so it doesn't hurt And I fell in love with nurses And I know that everything is ass-backwards That we idolize people who steal our money and own everything, rather than those who get paid very little To serve

And I know that chemo can be a metaphor As well as a physical treatment And that the poison is not meant for me But the cancer The perpetrators The rapists And it's okay to imagine them dead, mutilated and destroyed Because we need an outlet for our rage I know that after I was battered for years by my father and raped by him I held his badness, as if it were my own And that the surgery finally removed it And the chemo burned it off And I know that no one will ever again Convince me I am bad Nor will I tolerate being undermined And undone I know that the abscess that grew around my wound After the operation The 16 ounces of puss Became the contaminated Gulf of Mexico And the catheters they shoved into me without proper medication made me scream the way the earth cries out from the drilling

I know that everything is connected And the scar that runs the length of my torso is the markings of an earthquake And I am there with the 3 million Who are living in the streets of Port au Prince And the fire that burns in me on day 3 through 6 of treatment is the fire that is burning the forests of so much of the world

Cancer made it clear That time is short

And we must decide If we devote ourselves to wrestling power inside the crumbling walls of patriarchy or If we are ready and brave enough to build the new world And after searching for so many years to figure out what we are doing here I finally get that we are being alive Alive Alive And there must be time to linger And time to enjoy And time to remember And time for nothing And everything is precious The Indian sari curtains glittering in late summer sun The man petting his ugly dog in the park The morning fog The coconut popsicle And I know that avoiding suffering is impossible

Stop defending against what is being done Stop pretending you don't see the ragged man with his arm outstretched Or hearing the cries of the earth being slaughtered Or rationalizing the immoral war being fought in your name Or finding ways to let famous rapists off the hook Stop spending 900 billion dollars on unjust wars While 30 million Americans are unemployed Or justifying one genocide by another Or burying your own story because you think you can't bear how much it hurts

Dying is the only way of being born

My cancer is blessedly gone now My hair is growing back I have a scar A warrior track that runs down My 57-year-old body Each time I look at it I am reminded that I was opened up in order to remove the darkness I was laid bare in order to be free of the pain I surrendered in order to find my power Each time I see my scar I am reminded that I was lucky That I had insurance That I could afford the most extraordinary and loving surgeons and doctors That I was surrounded by an embarrassment of love and friends and family who bought me soup and presents And rubbed my feet and made me eggs at 6 in the morning when I was ready to throw up I am reminded that I mattered And because of that I recovered I know that every single person deserves this attention Every single person And so my scar has become a permanent tattoo Calling for inclusion and joy I know that what truly kept me alive is the women of Congo Whenever I grew despondent Or sorry for myself I would think of the women and girls Who still dance after 6 million Of their brothers and sisters have perished from the earth

Who still dance even after the international power elite has forsaken them for 13 years Who dance now knowing that V-Day's City of Joy will open February 4th And they will have their place, their fields Their village to turn their pain to power And become leaders in their world How blessed I am to be forever linked with their destiny I could not die Simply until they were safe and free and running things

I bow to the women of Congo and thank them for saving my life