The Gift of Cancer

The Huffington Post: October 27, 2010

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


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


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


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


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


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



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

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