Collections to Enhance Your Perspective This Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month. According to statistics from The Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 240,000 women and 2,100 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Along with shining a light on the condition itself, Breast Cancer Awareness Month  spurs vital dialogue about the lack of research into women’s health as compared to men’s, and how women must navigate a healthcare system that was never made for them. These four collections drive that conversation and other necessary themes forward, pushing past the pink ribbons to reveal what living with breast cancer and surviving breast cancer is really like. 


1. The Undying by Anne Boyer


Anne Boyer’s The Undying won a Pulitzer Prize for its frank, multifaceted narration of her cancer diagnosis and its aftermath. Though Boyer’s diagnosis – an aggressive form of triple-negative breast cancer – marked new stakes in her life, it also led her to further explore themes common throughout her writing career, including class, gender, and the role of the body. This interdisciplinary analysis of what it means to have cancer, especially as a woman and as a working-class person, fuels the book’s hybrid writing style, blending essay, memoir, and poetry. Within its pages, Boyer resists the usual platitudes and charitable calls that come with breast cancer, instead advocating for a systemic and revolutionary rethinking of how we treat illness and an examination of how attitudes toward illness reflect broader societal cruelty. 


2. Standing in the Forest of Being Alive by Katie Farris 


Like Boyer, Katie Farris pushes back against a singular narrative of breast cancer in her bold and vivid book Standing in the Forest of Being Alive. The debut collection comes out of her experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer at age thirty-six, but it’s as much about how this impacts ordinary life as it is about cancer’s extraordinary weight. Farris examines how a long history of medical writing has made people into subjects, then contrasts this by exhibiting her full, complex humanity in every poem. Farris writes as a citizen in a time of upheaval, as a poet and scholar, and as a partner and lover, delving into the political, the erotic, and the humorous alongside the medical. 


3. The Terrible Stories by Lucille Clifton


Lucille Clifton is one of the most influential poets in the history of the genre, a legacy that The Terrible Stories powerfully affirms. Clifton’s 10th collection, written as she underwent breast cancer, places these human events inBiblical and mythological history. She places poems about her mastectomy next to poems about King David and next to surrealist poems about fantastical talking animals. She also considers her experiences within the longer arc of Black history, speaking from both the present moment and harkening back to an antebellum period. The result is a masterfully interwoven collection that shows how personal events intersect with larger worlds both realistic and richly imagined. 


4. Our Cancers by Dan O’Brien


Dan O’Brien’s Our Cancers speaks out of an unimaginable period in his life: A year and a half during which he and his wife were both being treated for cancer, her for breast cancer and him for colon cancer. He described writing the collection as “learning to speak again” amidst these unbelievable events, as they each navigated their health journeys and parented a two-year-old daughter. Our Cancers is a devastating but essential read, one which shows the importance of finding connection within crisis. 

This month is an important reminder to be aware of your body and proactive about your  health. Read up on these tips for self-exams from the National Breast Cancer Foundation to take a key first step.