Straight Cancer in a Queer Body

Kimiko Tobimatsu shares her experience navigating breast cancer as a young, queer, mixed-race woman, explored in her forthcoming graphic memoir Kimiko Does Cancer. This article is based on a presentation delivered at the Curating Health Conference organised by The Nordic Network for Gender, Body and Health in December 2018. Illustrations by Keet Geniza.

Whether we know it or not, ideas around gender are frequently at the forefront of conversations about breast cancer. Little is as connected to notions of femininity as breasts, hair and fertility – all things that can be lost following a breast cancer diagnosis. Perhaps for this reason, society’s response to the disease is to throw pink ribbons, make-up tutorials and a peppy outlook at the problem. For many queers and gender non-conforming folks, this feminization of the disease is stifling. It’s something I’ve struggled with ever since my diagnosis in 2015 at 25 years old.

Image from ‘Kimiko does Cancer’ by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet Geniza.
Image from ‘Kimiko does Cancer’ by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet Geniza.

In my search for relatable experiences, I’ve clung to the writings of Audre Lorde in Cancer Journals; the comedy of Tig Notaro; and the powerful images (and writings) of Ericka Hart. It’s these stories, stories from queers, that resonate with me most.

Lorde and Hart, in particular, offer the critique of heteronormative cancer care that I was yearning for. Lorde, for example, talks about how after her mastectomy the nurses barely let her leave the hospital without putting on a prosthetic.

The situation is perhaps less dire now than when Lorde was treated in the 1970s, but there remains considerable pressure on women to get breast reconstruction following mastectomy. Doctors assume that no woman would want to stay flat: not true, of course, particularly for those of us on the more masculine end of the spectrum.

Image from ‘Kimiko does Cancer’ by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet Geniza.

Hart confronts this mentality through what she calls “topless activism”. Hart seeks to challenge the prevailing attitude that certain bodies are not to be shown, let alone celebrated.

Opening up society to different conceptions around what is attractive and what bodies should look like is about more than aesthetics. When we centre certain bodies and not others, it has dire consequences – black women with breast cancer get diagnosed at later stages than white women and have lower survival rates.

Queer writers have also brought an important analysis to the ways the cancer industry has intertwined with capitalism. For example, highlighting how companies slap a pink ribbon on products as a sales tactic and how cancer research focuses on treatment rather than prevention, thereby avoiding conversations about whether certain products are contributing to cancer rates.

By depoliticizing cancer, it becomes an easy cause to support. Pink ribbon campaigns offer a way to give money to an easy-to-sympathize-with-cause that doesn’t force engagement with more difficult issues like poverty or racial justice.

Image from ‘Kimiko does Cancer’ by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet Geniza.

It’s time for these conversations to take a more prominent place in the cancer discourse. It’s time to move beyond the pink ribbon.

Kimiko Tobimatsu is the author of Kimiko does Cancer, a forthcoming graphic memoir illustrated by Keet Geniza. Kimiko does Cancer explores the experience of navigating breast cancer as a young, queer, mixed-race woman.

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