The award-winning playwright shares the story behind her oeuvre.
“I am a one breasted, Jewish, bisexual lesbian mom. And I am the topic of our times.”— My Left Breast
I never wanted to write about breast cancer. I’m a playwright. I write characters. Flawed, funny, afflicted. They’re foolish for someone. They long for something beyond their grasp. They reach for it anyhow. They lose ground. They rise and fall.
Breast cancer patients
I write about that. Not cancer. Not what happened to me. And then I saw something already written on my body: my mastectomy scar as a metaphor. Something I could use to illuminate the larger story — my personal narrative and the history of our times. The scar as a marker. So, I wrote My Left Breast and came out on stages all around the country. And the audience came out to me. Men, women, young people told me their stories of loss and transformation: “My partner still thinks I’m beautiful. When will I feel beautiful?” “Should I go out in the world without my prosthesis? Don’t I already stand out enough as a lesbian?” “Are lesbians really at higher risk?” “Since my diagnosis, I’ve climbed a mountain, run a marathon.”
They related to my tales of parenthood, to the end of a love affair, to turning a certain age, to the shock of a diagnosis in 1980 at the beginning of a decade that would bring AIDS, a terrible new epidemic. And so, in this way breast cancer became theatre. A way of opening up. A connection.
Cancer used to be a secret. All things female were secret. Gay women, a secret even to themselves. Cancer placed you in themargins. You were defined by it. So you didn’t tell. Maybe that’s why breast cancer patients who are lesbians and already isolated from the larger community don’t want to be compelled to announce their sexuality. Fearful of exposure, of needing to involve our families, we avoid the doctor. (If something’s wrong, will my family be there for me? How do I tell my family? How do I tell the medical staff that the person with me is my partner?)
But hope lies in the telling. And the asking. It is in the knowing that we have any degree of mastery over our lives, any chance at all to govern our choices. It’s not breast cancer we have to fear. It’s not living our lives as completely as we can. It’s not speaking in our true voices. It’s not paying attention. It’s not having the facts. There are so many things to be afraid of. Cruelty. Missed opportunity.
What we have to do is educate ourselves. Learn our bodies and take care of them. Find physicians we trust to give us the care and information we need. Demand women’s health initiatives and responsible test trials. Diminish the risk to all of us by going after the major cause of cancer: our toxic environment. We can help advance science and medicine, just as we would society, by being involved citizens. By telling everyone who needs to know, who we are.
Twenty years ago an oncologist said to me, “There’s no cure for breast cancer. Or the common cold. But we can treat it.” That gave me comfort. We may be closer now than ever to a cure. But there will always be something that tests us. That changes the way we look at the world and the days we spend here.
I was on a panel of “survivors” (I have trouble with that word!) recently in Salt Lake City following a performance of My Left Breast, and a woman in the audience shouted out, “We must end this disease. We must put a stop to it!” And I had this entirely weird reaction. I thought, well, sure, of course, but we have to put a stop to a lot of things—famine, illiteracy, the poverty of spirit and imagination, corporate greed. We have to find a way to live with one another on this planet. And be accountable. But, more importantly, we have to participate in our own destinies. And be unflinchingly ourselves.
Susan Miller’s play, My Left Breast, is published in O Solo Homo (Grove Press).