I sing often. By myself. In the car with the windows rolled down. While I cook when I’m the only one home. I can sing in a group, silly camp songs that have little or no melody and are mostly screamy-shouty-silly. And sometimes when in a large group around a campfire, but only when there’s lots of others to carry the tune and I can mumble along under my breath. And that is it. Never in public. And so when we talked about me and some cancer buddies singing the chorus of the cancer-song I wrote with my friend Kate, I was of course really worried about my never-in-public singing voice.
Except today, I sang loudly and you could hear me and it was awesome. Today we recorded the song. It was complicated and generative and full of emotion and awesome. We left Vancouver early, and pulled up to a house by a creek out in Coquitlam. In the basement recording studio they were setting up drums. Bit by bit, they worked through each line, practicing. The guys on the drums and bass, Kate on her guitar and singing, me in total disbelief that these people were actually recording this story in music, giving voice to my experience, listening and carefully crafting sound so it can be shared. I mean seriously- when does that happen?
On our way over, we discussed the way some folks raised their eyebrows about the swearing in the song. “It takes away from the message,” they explained, “It will turn people off.” Others worried we might offend health care providers with the chorus, which goes “And they took my left tit away like they didn’t even give a shit/and I’m the brink of a fit of rage ’cause all I’m surrounded with is breast cancer pink.” You know what I think? I think people are responding to the voicing of breast cancer as angry more than the expletives or even the “they didn’t give a shit.” I think it’s uncomfortable because its too close to the skin. It cuts too close to the heart. It’s too painful to think about. And so people react.
It certainly is my experience that they didn’t give a shit- literally, they cannot, because it’s not their breast immobilized and cut off. It’s not their breast that becomes hospital trash. They didn’t save the majority of my breast, the parts they didn’t use for the pathology. They trashed it. A cancer-buddy informed me today of a scandal in which hospital trash was used to generate heat and air conditioning for Californian homes. I could maybe get on board with heat. But air conditioning? No. Even if the doc has the best bedside manner ever and even though I certainly feel so cared for by them- they still cut into my body and removed a part of me and it’s gone forever, and probably a lot of it got thrown in the trash, and maybe its in a landfill next to used computer screens and broken wine bottles, and maybe there’s seagulls eating it, and maybe it is being burned to heat some Northern Californian home. That is not caring.That is participating in a system that doesn’t care, and even if you’re participating because you want to cure breast cancer, its still horribly pathologizing and its still not giving a shit. If it was testicles we were talking about, they would have found a way to save them by now that actually works, not like the half-assed attempts at lumpectomies that result in lower survival rates among young women, and that provide no comfort at all, especially if you’re under 40 and have no way to access any kind of reliable screening. Giving a shit would be answering my question when I ask how much longer until they get the needle out of my breast, and giving a shit would be offering me a screening MRI because my cancer was undetectable without me having to ask. Giving a shit is almost impossible in the system.
Anytime any of us says anything negative about our doctors, or anything that’s not “they’re amazing they saved my life” everyone gets up in arms. There’s such a need to glorify doctors, and patients are supposed to be grateful. It’s gendered. An angry man would be more appropriate. I should instead be grateful they saved my nipple, grateful they reconstructed a lump that kind of matches the other half of my chest, grateful grateful grateful. I am of course grateful to be alive, but the purpose of the song isn’t to make those doctors feel OK about their work. Their paychecks should take care of that. The song is supposed to give voice to something else, someone else. There’s not words for cancer-trauma, it is especially word-less, especially unable to be metabolized in language, especially deserving of a giant fuck you. When I asked a fellow young breast cancer buddy if the swearing was OK, ending the question by explaining that some people had reservations, she retorted, “These people with reservations have their left tit intact? Then they get no say. It’s totally appropriate.” Obviously. The song is supposed to shock you into rethinking your assumptions about breast cancer, its supposed to queer this exhausting happy-happy narrative, its supposed to make our experience visible.
And yet something felt weird, a little raw, kind of embarrassing as we sat together in the dark basement studio, and the sounds came together in the most awesome of ways. They appreciated the words, these musician guys, I think. But they were guys, they haven’t had breast cancer- or any cancer- and I doubt they’d call themselves feminists. We slipped upstairs for some tea. Kate felt it too, acknowledging the challenges in doing feminist work in a studio full of men. The breast cancer narrative is so entrenched and so gendered. It’s hard to queer that pink-ribbon story, hard to weave a breast cancer experience defined by anger and frustration into public discourse. I took great comfort knowing Kate felt that too, and that she’s been doing this kind of queer and feminist work for a long time, and sometimes it’s hard, but it’s still insanely critical, so important, good and hard work. You gotta look up to someone who rocks out like that- both literally and metaphorically- so hard. And so we took a few breaks. She’s been close enough to breast cancer that she can grasp the horror, see through the bullshit, and laugh at the right moments. Being able to both grasp the horror and laugh at it is both totally unique and incredibly important.
And when it was time, us cancer girls gathered around the microphone, and tentatively at first, we sang the chorus. And then again. And then again. And then again. Until we sang it so many times there was no more tentative, there was just lyrics on a page and a fuck you cancer feeling and us singing. It was awesome. And I sang in public. Or public-ish, at least.
It was all of the emotions, today in the studio. I was excited to be part of the process, I was nervous to sing, I was intimidated by these amazing musicians, I was in awe of the music, I was sad about the cancer, I was giddy to hear my story sung, I was pissed off about patriarchal capitalism, I was reflective about this whole long year, I was grateful to have such creative-earth-shaking friends. As the music and the feelings filled the basement studio I cried because it was awkward and the boys didn’t get it; I cried because cancer sucks so hard; I cried because when I heard all of our voices together- my voice and Kate’s voice and Kara’s and Kristina’s voices in the second to last chorus- it sounded like an entire cancer-chorus and I felt so not alone; I cried because it’s such an incredible thing to have this story-song and I’m so intensely grateful to Kate and the boy musicians and Kristina and Kara for making it happen.
We did it. It was awesome. You will hear it soon. I love it. I will keep listening, and the song will continue to be a generative source of healing, comfort, and awesome. Here are the four of us, after singing our hearts out in the chorus. It was incredible, and it was healing, comforting, and awesome. Oh, and we’re fucking pissed off about breast cancer.