Learning How To Speak!

November 30, 2016 5:32 pm

The following article is provided by The Clearity Foundation to support women with ovarian cancer and their families. Learn more about The Clearity Foundation and the services we provide directly to women as they make treatment decisions and navigate emotional impacts of their diagnosis.

Learning How To Speak!

In 1978 after graduating with a Ph.D in English and American Literature, I began looking for an academic teaching position in a college or university. I acquired a tenure track position as an assistant professor of English and women’s studies and found myself in a similar position of “unlearning how to not speak!”

Throughout undergraduate and graduate school, I had few women professors and studied few female authors. Instead, most of the authors were dead white men as in the great books of the western world. I acquired valuable background from reading all, but never really saw the experiences of my own life reflected in them. However my face, voice, and interests were always wrong as they were those of a female, not a male.

In the 1970s, my few fellow women graduate students and I were seen by male faculty as frivolous housewives and dilettantes even though our hard earned tuition dollars were much appreciated at the private university we attended. Most of us were in our 40s having married, had children, and returned to graduate school when our own children were in preschool, elementary school or even secondary school.

Yet, in classroom discussions, the male voices appeared to carry considerably more authority with the male professor than our female voices. Often I was compared to the professors’ wives rather than my male graduate students. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I realized how much I’d been patronized by my male professors and fellow male students.

In my last years of graduate school, I deliberately sought out the two female professors who taught women in literature and women in history. Finally in these classrooms, I saw my own life experiences reflected in the struggles of the women we read about in literature and history.

Consequently when I selected a topic for my dissertation, I chose to compare the ages of women in pioneer literature in the works of Willa Cather and two male novelists, Wallace Stegner and Olaf Rolvag. Even though my choice of subject matter was thought somewhat controversial, I somehow managed to receive my Ph.D in 1978.

After graduating, because academic positions in colleges were so difficult to acquire, I spent nearly seven years working as a consultant teaching writing and as a trainer for diversity seminars.

Finally, in the 1980s I was hired as an assistant professor in a state college with a split appointment in English and Women’s Studies. I knew in order to earn tenure in that position I needed to be as acceptable as possible to my male professor colleagues. So I wore tailored suits, neutral blouses, had short hair and nails, a watch and my wedding ring. In addition to teaching my courses, I researched, wrote papers, co-wrote and edited two books, gave professional presentations at academic conferences, and served on multiple committees.

Finally, after earning tenure, I grunted to a halt. I’d diligently paid my dues! I joined the curriculum and tenure committees and began lobbying for adding women, minority, and gays writers to the curriculum. I also supported other younger women academics. The tailored suits landed at Good Will and I added colored clothing to my wardrobe. While I continued wearing my watch and wedding ring, I added bright gold earrings, multiple rings, bracelets, and the necklaces I’d loved. I embraced power pink. I’d learned to speak first for myself and then for other women.

So I thought I’d finally found my voice and myself and would never lose it again!

Then in 2008, I was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer and found myself back in the same position as Marge Piercy’s narrator.

Fortunately, I was immediately diagnosed by my son’s wife’s female obstetrician who was marvelously compassionate and encouraging. Because of a scarcity of gynecologists and oncologists in the city where I lived, I had to go to a male gynecologist and oncologist for my surgery.

Because my son worked for a well known pharmaceutical firm in oncology sales, he advised me to seek and add Avastin to my initial treatment. He accompanied my husband and I to the surgeon. When the surgeon examined me, I said “Don’t be offended if I ask lots of questions as I’m a former registered nurse and college professor.” He said “you let me ask the questions.”

There I was with my feet in stirrups, once again, being put in my place as a “wombman.” I was terribly vulnerable but his attitude didn’t suit me!

When I woke up after surgery, I asked for my prognosis and he gave it to me straight, “You have a 25 to 33 percent chance of living five years.” He had left 10% of the tumor behind!

Somehow, as I started to recover from surgery, I began to find shreds of my former voice returning. By the time I began chemotherapy in his office, I had made up my mind that I’d prove him wrong. I told him I had never been in the bottom 25-33 percent of ANY academic class and I did not intend to be embrace those statistics with ovarian cancer either. I was scared to death and bluffing, but somehow I convinced myself and him!

Consequently, each treatment I chose the chemo station that looked out into the office hall so that each time he entered and exited an examining room he’d have to see me. For my somewhat belligerent attitude he nicknamed me “Trouble.”

After four treatments, my husband and I moved to another city where I saw a very compassionate male medical oncologist. After I completed chemotherapy, he thought I should see a gynecologist and oncologist. I consulted two in Los Angeles; the first, a man, told me that it mattered little whether or not I had maintenance treatment because I’d die of ovarian cancer anyway. Once again I was silenced and put in a dark place! Consequently, I consulted a female┬ádoctor who reassured me I was doing fine. She said, “it is my job to keep you alive ten years after, which there should be a cure.” Her compassionate care and support re-energized me. And recently, I just celebrated my eight year cancer-versary still NED!

Today, I’m not content with finding ONLY my voice! I want every woman with ovarian cancer to find her voice, also, and to demand that she receive not only the best medical treatment, but the respect, support, and compassion she needs from her doctor and those who care for her. If we remain silent, how will our needs be met!

So I hope now, you understand why I believe this poem delivers important advice to all ovarian cancer survivors! And if it means you earn the nickname “trouble,” then I hope the nickname will energize your recovery and survival as well!

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