Sick of things getting stuck in her craw, Bryony Kimmings has decided to take positive action about stuff that makes her blood boil. Here she questions the ‘brave silence’ around cancer.
With thanks to Wellcome Library
Through her research, Bryony Kimmings has found a huge respect for cancer.
Oh my god CANCER is scary shit!
AND everything gives you it…
Fags, sunbeds, fine foods, your mum. Jesus, all the good stuff.
No wonder we try not to think about it. No wonder we absentmindedly count our mates around the dinner table and secretly pray WE aren’t that horrid 1 in 3 statistic. No wonder we dress it up with a no-makeup selfie or a bubbly, bra-wielding night walk. No wonder we tie all the pain and anguish up with an appropriately coloured bow… Pink for boobs… brown for bowel… Am I right?
Erm. Well, actually no. I am here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be like this. That what we are being sold might just be the wrong story. The one that keeps us quiet, the taboos and stigma intact, might be the one that is making it worse.
A considerable extra part of having cancer in the 21st century, on top of the pain itself, is about dealing with the shame. Wrapping it in a bow doesn’t stop that. It actually perpetuates it.
Let me explain.
I am not a doctor. I am an activist artist (read my biog; trust me I am your new favourite person). I don’t have cancer but I am writing a musical about it. If I did have it, these are some words that MIGHT automatically pop into your head:
The metaphoric language fed as the mainstream narrative, from Cancer Research UK to central government, reads that CANCER = WAR. Your body and your mind march an undignified journey into a battle for which you feel somehow responsible. Your body becomes the property of someone else who doesn’t love you but sees you as a number. You are told to be brave and quiet, when courage and silence make no difference to cells that are dividing out of control.
This doesn’t sit well with me. You see it smacks of ego, the patriarchy and fucking capitalism. Because behind every system of control, history tell us sisters, there is someone making a profit and someone wanking over the power. A feminist, an activist, a champion of equality in all other realms of her life doesn’t believe in a WAR against anything.
Right now I am elbow deep in cancer. And from this exploration I have made one, quite odd, conclusion: I have found a huge respect for the disease. Think about it: it’s immortal; it’s outwitting us – it survives radiation for fuck’s sake. It is a superhero! Now I know if you’re reading this and you’ve recently lost your mum to Hodgkin lymphoma, on first glance you don’t want to hear how GREAT cancer is. But as soon as you say it, out loud, it releases you from the dialogue that limits your power. Cancer is awesome, sometimes unbeatable. There, now don’t you feel less like a failure if you can’t just fight the fucker off? Sit down and have a biscuit.
Turns out hundreds of other humans are as angry about the marketing of cancer as I am. The divide and conquer simply doesn’t seem fair; check out Pancreatic Cancer Action’s “I wish I had…” campaign for instance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDU1XEAWkxE.
I met a friend of mine who has had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia for SEVEN years; she has been told she will die in two years – twice! She told me, “Having cancer means you need to learn another language; a man’s language only you and your doctors speak and this is very isolating.” Why is this the norm?
I went with my friend Judith to her radiotherapy; we sat in a room full of lasers. Judith’s naked torso moved millimetres on a slab while the nurses (NHS angels from heaven) played Chaka Khan for us. She told me she had never laughed in the ward before. We hugged and we made peace not war. So why are we being bred to be aggressive?
My pal Emma is a relentlessly positive Palliative Care Nurse at a cancer hospice in South London. She told me explicitly of death by exsanguination (or bleeding out as it is also known), of the last days of life and the things people say. I thought about the curriculum and wondered why we weren’t taught about the fragility of both the earth and the body at school instead of about Henry VIII’s poor wives. Why?
I listened to a podcast from epidemiologist Dr Valerie Beral who understands wars are all about profit. Apparently breast cancer risk is diminished if a women breastfeeds and this, currently unidentified, hormone could be a vaccine. But because most research funding is based on short-term gain, ego-driven science ensures that this can only be developed through philanthropic endeavour. Let me repeat that: breast cancer has a potential vaccine! All we need is a friendly millionaire and a rogue, selfless scientist to invent it. WTF? http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01qdw1k
And I read the single greatest book of all time: The Cancer Journals by poet Audre Lorde. She spoke a language of feminist cancer to me: “We can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles and we still will be no less afraid.” If it is fear and shame that keeps us silent then we can only find strength in questioning the feeders of this fear; we must deconstruct the language that fuels this army, because we are being controlled, not just by our own genius, sick bodies, but by those who want the glory of controlling and curing them.
No-makeup selfies are silencing you.
Ribbons are bows and arrows.
So ladies put this shit down, stop waltzing about in your bra and grab a megaphone.
Run mastectomied and laughing through the streets for the war is over.
Now is the time for peace. And acceptance. And talking. And together let’s write a new FEMINIST cancer story.
I’m off to write a musical. See you in a month.
Performance Artist. Activist. Writer. Feminist. Comedian. Auntie. Person. Currently: pop star for tweens, collector of pubes and sayer of sooths.