Navigating Breast Cancer as a Young, Queer, Mixed-Race Woman
Not long ago, I was at the launch of Reflections on Illness, a zine of essays, interviews and comics by activists in Canada who face life-threatening sicknesses. It was a powerful night. I’d rarely before heard people talk about cancer in the same breath as organizing, capitalism, and social welfare cuts. I’m not one for public displays of emotion, but by the end of the night I was tearing up as I voiced my appreciation to editors Nazila Bettache and Sarah Vance.
And so it was, four years into my cancer diagnosis, that I felt like maybe there was a place for me within the cancer community after all. Before then, I’d been clinging to Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, Ericka Hart’s social media and Tig Notaro’s comedy to get me through. This was the first time I was actually in a group of like-minded peers.
Afterward, a fellow queer person asked me if I knew where the queers with cancer hung out in the city. I joked that this was all of us. Sure, I was being melodramatic, but it’s certainly been isolating being a young queer with breast cancer. The pink, chipper attitudes, and corporate sponsorships of the mainstream breast cancer community don’t exactly scream, “we’re gay”, or at least not my brand of masculine-presenting, left-leaning gay.
It’s not surprising then, that as I came to grips with my diagnosis, the standard breast cancer resources didn’t bring me much insight. I didn’t want to talk about how to recover my sense of femininity despite breast scars and menopause; I wanted to explore how losing my breasts might allow me to lean into my masculinity. I didn’t want to talk about how changing femininity could affect a hetero relationship; I wanted to talk about the implications of breast cancer on queer relationships between women.
Still, I’ve been lucky to have a supportive set of ears among my non-cancer-having-queer-friends, and my cancer-having-non-queer friends. Friends who can laugh and gasp with me when I share how my plastic surgeon asked if I wanted to enhance my breast size with reconstruction or when my oncologist reassured me that I wouldn’t have to bear not having breasts. Friends who were immediately supportive when I revealed that I’d started doodling – think grade 4 stick figures – about my experience.
At first, my doodles were mostly just to affirm for myself that what I was going through really was as bizarre as it felt. But when I looked for similar writings and was reminded how little there is out there for queers, my intentions changed. As Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
I didn’t want to do so on my own though – I knew my rudimentary drawings wouldn’t get me far. So I paired up with talented illustrator Keet Geniza and together we’ve been creating a graphic memoir called Kimiko Does Cancer. It hasn’t been easy processing my feelings so publicly but then, as Keet reminds me, art is vulnerable. So here’s to vulnerability. And to being gay.
By Kimiko Tobimatsu