Fight Cancer like a Feminist

Fight Cancer like a Feminist

On May 2, 2018, I was coming out of anesthesia from an emergency appendectomy when I learned I might have cancer. After an excruciating five days in the hospital, my surgeon confirmed that I had moderately differentiated adenocarcinoma but was unsure as to the type of cancer. While it may sound cliché, my life quite literally flashed before my eyes. The surgeon told me I would need to meet with an oncologist to determine the type of cancer I had and warned me to take better care of myself.

In the days leading up to my hospitalization, I had traveled to California for a conference, where I was presenting part of a chapter for my next book project. The conference, like any that I am required to attend as part of my profession, was both physically and intellectually exhausting. When I returned, I was incredibly sick. My stomach felt as though I had swallowed needles. I continued to teach, because I believed that I could not miss class in the last week of the semester, until I threw up before my second class of that Monday. I came to work the following day, feeling even worse, my skin a pale gray. I finally went to urgent care that Tuesday after my husband drove me there in a panic. When the doctor told me that my appendix had burst, my first thought was, “I can’t miss class tomorrow.” My surgeon later told me that had I waited to seek medical attention until that Friday, I would have died.

Two weeks following my appendectomy, due to the effects of taking heavy antibiotics, I contracted a bacterial infection. My weight dropped drastically and I was desperately ill, still recovering from emergency surgery. In that amount of time, I had to write the index for my book and complete final copy edits. I never stopped working. I could not take a break from work because I would get behind my male colleagues, who were already spending the summer working on their next projects. There was no time for a personal health crisis.

In June, the first of many oncologists I saw diagnosed me with stage two appendiceal cancer — a very rare form that tends to affect women more than men. No oncologist in my area of rural Colorado knew how to treat it because it is incredibly rare with an estimated incidence of 0.15 – 0.9 per 100,000 people. I was told I would have to undergo radiation and chemotherapy, and that I would most likely have to quit my job or at least take a leave of absence from work. I felt powerless to the cancer in my body and to the course my life was taking. I could have given up at any point in my career. Instead, I persevered.

This was the most difficult news I had ever been dealt, and I was angry. I had spent my entire professional life working to achieve my job as a history professor. A 2007 survey of four-year college and university faculty found that women comprised just under 35% of all academic historians and, over the course of my career, I have felt that discrepancy. When I first wanted to get my master’s degree, a professor told me that I would not get into graduate school, and even if I did, that I did not have thick enough skin to handle the devastating process of becoming an expert in your field.

I endured brutal competition, jealousy, and spite in my quest to become a history professor. I felt as though I had to spend twice as much time in the library, sometimes not leaving until three in the morning when I had to teach at eight. Male graduate students regularly talked over me during seminars and made me feel as though my research was not nearly as vigorous as theirs was. I learned to make my voice and ideas heard — loudly if needed — to the threat of others in the class judging my comments as shrill by speaking up. During my graduate studies, I watched as female colleagues fell off, one by one – casualties of an environment in which women who had lives outside of academia as mothers and wives could not fulfill their dreams. The rigor of a demanding system that often meant working in the library until two in the morning certainly conflicted with the balance of family. Because of my privilege as a single, white, childless, twenty-something woman, I was able to attain my Ph.D. I consciously traded that privilege in the world of academia, however, when I made the decision to have a family. I struggled to balance work and life on an hourly basis. When the oncologist told me that I would perhaps have to give up everything that I had worked so hard to achieve, I had to become my own vocal advocate to ensure that would not happen.

Over the past year, I have had three major surgeries. In total, I have lost eighteen inches of my large intestine, thirty-two lymph nodes, two tumors, and an ovary and fallopian tube, and gained an eight-inch scar most women’s magazines would not consider “beach body” appropriate. I had to make an on-the-spot decision as to whether or not I wanted to have another child, otherwise the surgeon would have taken my other ovary. The struggle to battle cancer gave me a voice I did not know I possessed and made me a better feminist. Instead of crying, I reengaged with the music of Riot Grrrl and found power in their words. This struggle has not made me a victim, but instead emboldened me to fight harder to achieve my personal and professional goals.

The moral of the story is this: I implore you to find your voice and use it as though your life depends on it. While my health suffered due to my choices to fight for what brings me joy, I do not regret anything and will continue to fight. After feeling gender imbalance for my entire career, after facing ridicule and judgment for my decision to stay in academia and be a mother and partner, I finally found strength in advocating for my bodily autonomy — a privilege that women continue to fight for. My health struggles have positively affected my research for my next book on the history of girlhood and feminism in the 1990s. When I drove to my first oncologist appointment blaring Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” in my car, I felt the visceral rage Kathleen Hanna sung about and made a promise to myself: that if I made it out of this dark time alive, I would be more courageous, have better balance, and would express my anger rather than defaulting to politeness. Now a year into remission, I remind myself everyday of how far I have come.

Erika K. Jackson is an associate professor of history at Colorado Mesa University and is author of the book, Scandinavians in Chicago: The Origins of White Privilege in Modern America (University of Illinois Press, 2019). Her next book project examines the experiences of the “alt” girl of the 1990s who watched My So-Called Life, wore Doc Martens, and rocked out to Bikini Kill.