Brand building through storytelling

Mastectomy in 1811: an unforgettable breast cancer memoir

In more than 30 years of writing and editing for women, I must have read hundreds of breast cancer memoirs—some alight with hope, some burning with anger, some shadowed by the knowledge that time was running out. They’ve collectively revealed every step in a passage once so charged with shame and fear that the only way to glimpse what lurked there was to walk through the fire yourself.

I remember the days when women didn’t tell the truth about the disease they dreaded most because breasts were equated with sex and therefore not deemed fit for polite conversation. Now, thanks to straight-talking survivors, I can begin to imagine what it’s like to find handfuls of hair on your pillow, to confront a scar where a curve used to be, to wonder if a nagging, indefinable ache means the cancer is back. I shudder a little, but then I see the hard-won strength—and sometimes the triumphant humour—in the woman who has lived to tell this tale. And I know that if I ever have to follow in their footsteps, I won’t lose myself along with chunks of my flesh.

It’s been 199 years since Fanny Burney, an English novelist living in France, endured a harrowing mastectomy, performed in her own home with nothing but a wine cordial to blunt the pain. Nine months passed before she could speak of the surgery to anyone; the thought of it made her ill. Then she summoned the courage to describe—and relive—the whole ordeal in a letter to her sister Esther that captures not only the forgotten suffering of countless generations of women but the power of memoir to console even as it terrifies. I’ve never read a more powerful testament of one woman’s struggle with breast cancer.

What Burney had to face has more in common with slasher movies than with modern surgery, yet through it all she remained absolutely and unshakeably herself. Horror-struck but clear-eyed. Resigned but not about to mince words. She writes of the moment when she mounted her bed, surrounded by seven men in black: “I now began to tremble violently, more with distaste & horror of the preparations than even of the pain….I stood suspended, for a moment, whether I should not abruptly escape—I looked at the door, the windows….I called to my maid–she was crying, & the two Nurses stood, transfixed, at the door. Let those women all go!, cried M. Dubois. This order recovered me my Voice–No, I cried, let them stay!”

Unless you’re a serious student of the English novel or 18th-century literati, you probably haven’t heard of Fanny Burney, who in her day won the friendship of royalty, the adulation of readers and the unrequited love of Samuel Johnson. Unlike her contemporary, Jane Austen, she favoured an ornate style that wouldn’t win her any fans at your book club. But she had a master storyteller’s instinct for suspense and eye for the revealing detail that pull the modern reader into the bedroom where her right breast was sawed from her body.

Burney knew she had cancer when the seven men in black descended on her household. She expected a gruelling operation that might kill her (while waiting for the surgeon she penned farewell letters to her husband and son). Dutiful wife that she was, she had made it her first priority to send her husband out of the house on an urgent errand she’d concocted to shield him from her agony.

But nothing had prepared her for the amputation of her breast. Through the handkerchief that covered her face, she “saw the hand of M.Dubois held up, while his forefinger first described a straight line from top to bottom of the breast, secondly a Cross & thirdly a circle; intimating that the WHOLE was to be taken off. Excited by this idea, I started up, threw off my veil…& explained the nature of my sufferings, which all sprang from one point.” Unconvinced, the doctors replaced the veil and began the sawing that Burney describes in unflinching detail, noting even the moment when the weary surgeon had to shift his instrument from the right hand to the left.

Remember the familiar Zen saying “Be there now?” I tell my memoir students, “Be there then.” Recreate the scene. Let me see through your eyes, hear through your ears, feel the urgency of your emotions. Let me walk beside you through moments that challenged and changed you. That can take monumental courage, but Burney delivers the goods. More than a chronicler of pain, she’s also a sharp observer of character. Take M. Dubois, whose delicacy of feeling she captures in this exchange before the operation: “Can You, I cried, feel for an operation that, to You, must seem so trivial?–Trivial? he repeated—taking up a bit of paper which he tore, unconsciously, into a million pieces, oui–c’est peu de chose—mais (Yes, it is a little thing but), he stammered, & could not go on.”

Entrusting her female body to the bloody ministrations of men, Burney longed for the company of women who could witness her suffering as kindred spirits. That’s why she insisted that her maids remain present, why she thought of her sisters as she faced the knife, and why her need to confide in Esther trumped her fear of remembering the surgery.

Fanny Burney lost her breast at 59. She lived to a great age for her time—87. In her letter to Esther, she lives still, calling across the centuries, “See what I saw. Feel what I felt. Be my witness.”

Click  here to learn more about my one-day memoir workshops for women. I run groups at semi-regular intervals or on request.

 

 

Posted by Rona

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