by Nancy K Miller
For a long time I thought about my body as a gynecological fact, not to say problem.
Feminism made female anatomy—especially the reproductive parts—interesting: our bodies, ourselves was the watchword of the movement in the 1970s, and the title of a book that functioned something like a bible, the font of knowledge. We believed in “thinking through the body,” the fascinations of the speculum. In my post-hormonal life, as I watched my body age and decline in unexpected and unpleasing ways—the wrinkled flesh, for instance, on the inside of the elbow–the idea of the body became more and more abstract. Or rather, I felt more and more distanced from my body as the expression—or the form—of my identity. I no longer wished to identify with my body as it was becoming. In a way, I set my body aside, and took its various functions for granted. True, I was never going to go up in a handstand in yoga class—mainly because I was too afraid—but my body and I had arrived at a kind of truce. I wouldn’t bother it and it wouldn’t bother me—source neither of particular pleasure, nor remarkable pain…nothing more than the vehicle of my existence as an intellectual, thereby bypassing all the lessons of yoga, of course.
But then cancer. Since my diagnosis this January I have been “asymptomatic.” This means that while I have stage 3B lung cancer (you don’t want to have 3B anything in cancer), the only cancer manifestations I’m aware of are those produced by chemotherapy. As a result, when chemo’s side effects wear off, which they do after the week following treatment, I forget, intermittently, that the cancer is lurking, working hard in my body to outsmart the doctors and the patient—set on its malignant trajectory. The cancer cells don’t care about me (the person I thought I was); they don’t care what I think, feel, who I am (was). My body’s material—its cellular composition—has been transformed: the inner me, my invisible self, is ruled by the anarchic effects of genetic mutation. Does this make me a cyborg?
Cancer produces a bizarre mind/body split. My body is now on a course of its own (which naturally it always was), and my job as a thinking being is to weigh what I’m willing to have done to it, even if the patient is always being cajoled or bullied into doing more. As feminists we were proud of our ability to control our bodies (or so we thought), along with our destiny. We had a right to choose. But living with cancer is the opposite of choosing. What if I do nothing, I asked the oncologist the day of diagnosis. He looked at me askance, and then described the horrors of the decline that I could expect. Pro-choice, pro-life, the terms of feminist debate no longer apply.
When one day I was too exhausted to get out of bed, I learned what chemo does to red blood cells: anemia. And I had my first transfusion. Although being a patient entails being ready at any moment to have skin and veins punctured, without fussing or flinching, I found it hard to wrap my mind around a transfusion. It wasn’t that I was particularly attached to my blood—until this illness I did not even know my blood type—but the idea of someone else’s blood entering my body seemed strange and frightening. Even when you know your blood type, you have to have a cross-match (that’s the language) to make sure that your type is indeed what your type is, even though as a patient whose blood has been drawn multiple times, there is no mystery. Still, accidents happen in hospitals and we might as well be happy about a cross-match, proof by redundancy, like repeating your name and birth date at every procedure.
The day of my transfusion, I was tucked into a bed and covered with a white sheet to stay warm. As the hours passed, and the blood dripped slowly out of the bag and streamed down the long tube into my veins, I knew I had passed a threshold, that in every way, my body was no longer—if it had ever been—my own.