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The Gift of Cancer

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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