“Those who do not die”, Anne Boyer facing breast cancer

8:25 a.m., April 28, 2022

It’s summer. She wears a green tank top, sandals, denim shorts. Anne Boyer is 41 years old. The disease did not have the politeness to announce itself gently, on tiptoe in weightlessness. The tumor is just there, sitting on the screen like a dark spot. Doctors diagnosed her with triple-negative breast cancer. We are in 2014. Anne Boyer is an American poet, mother of a teenager. The roadmap of the medical profession: heavy chemotherapy and double mastectomy. Triple negative cancer is one of the most aggressive. Should we write about what we live? Anne Boyer follows in the footsteps of her elders: Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Kathy Acker. Susan Sontag, herself treated for breast cancer diagnosed in 1974, did not want to write “I” and “cancer” in the same sentence. In Illness as a Metaphor (1978), the essayist reminded us that cancer should not be taken personally. There’s nothing to look for on that side of the shore.

When it comes to breast cancer, times have changed. Disinterest gave way to uproar. We talk, we talk about it. Pink ribbon, testimonials from personalities, advice on the Internet. Anne Boyer will write “I” and “cancer” in the same sentence to imbue each word with a trembling singularity. His text is embodied and armed. Consumerist society, ultra-connected society, liberal society. The poet denounces an unequal American health system. A family member can get paid time off to take care of you, but not one of your closest friends. A friend will therefore accompany her during her lunch break because the surgeon refuses to give her the first results of the biopsy if she comes alone. Once the dark diagnosis is established, so many things to do and undo: tell the mother, tell the daughter, find an agreement with the employer, call someone to take care of the cat, pay the bills. Nothing stops. Anne Boyer must go on living as life dries up inside her. Going from the bed to the door exhausts him. We have to find money and help. Recourse and help. She is anxious because she is alone. The poetess and intellectual also clings to magic for a time, because how to do without.

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fierce humor

Anne Boyer talks about her journey in oncology. Waiting rooms where wives fill out forms for their husbands, mothers those for their children, sick women theirs. Being alone is the worst situation when you get sick. Black women and unmarried women are at the highest risk of dying from breast cancer. Anne Boyer analyzes with fierce humor the reports to oncologists: “In the cancer ward, disobedience is dangerous, but so is obedience. Around, life. The non-sick have comments to make about the sick. He is told that choosing chemotherapy is like jumping off a building with a gun to your head. Anne Boyer writes that we decide to do chemotherapy for many reasons, including the legitimate hope of being cured. Patients may also fear that those around them will think that they deserve their own suffering if they do not submit to it. Everything is possible. People tell her that they would rather die than suffer what she is going through.

In the cancer ward, disobedience is dangerous, but so is obedience

Does she have the right to complain? Society asks him to be grateful. She is undergoing treatment; she has a job; she has friends. She is still alive at 41. Anne Boyer is grateful. She particularly praises the work of the nurses. But his whole story rebels against the idea that there are good and bad patients. The tone creaks. The poet recalls that cancer kills, that chemotherapy kills, that the absence of chemotherapy kills. Magnificent pages on“unofficial and outlaw love” friends. She wonders about her dependence on her loved ones. What if she had been hard to love, and if she had become hard to love? Anne Boyer evokes the exhaustion caused by the treatments endured. “A worn-out body almost always gives the wrong information. Bad information is also good: it can’t go on any longer, unless it is, which proves how much the line between life and death is blurred. »

Exposing social networks, false information about cancer

During the illness, she loses lovers, bits of memory, eyelashes. She has to work during chemotherapy and then go back ten days after a double mastectomy. She falls, staggers, holds. Anne Boyer was born in Kansas in 1973. Her text is resolutely modern in its exposure of social networks, false information about cancer, the world of profit at all costs. In the United States, money is needed for everything and above all to have a chance of healing. The poetess warns against charlatans. She chooses the doctors, the chemotherapy, the operation.

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One day, a phone call from the surgeon: the protocol worked, the cancer disappeared. Anne Boyer has written a hybrid text, with subliminal force. Those who do not die is also written for those who die. Literature is a matter of memory. The author has managed a mixture of poetry, story, testimony, pamphlet crowned by the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 2020. The diagnosis of cancer cuts life in two. Anne Boyer enters into an acute awareness of uncertain times. Do those who do not suffer want to hear the words of those who suffer? Anne Boyer survived cancer: a fragile and friable state. She is an intellectual. Art in all its forms is a valuable aid to thinking about the absence of meaning. In this incandescent story, the words burn like sparks. Anger blocks sadness. Life deaf in its beauty, like everything that is rare.

Those who don’t die Anne Boyer, translated from English (United States) by Céline Leroy, Grasset, 352 pages, 22 euros.

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“Those who do not die”, Anne Boyer facing breast cancer