The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. …. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring.
Every time I look at you, I think, Now I cannot die.
--Sandra Steingraber, Having Faith.
Mothering and Cancer: The Awakening Of An Ecofeminist
The cancer memoir is well known: Audre Lorde’s Cancer Diaries, Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream and Having Faith, Zillah Eisenstein’s Manmade Breast Cancers, Susanna Antonetta’s Body Toxic, and Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place are brilliant examples of personal and feminist accounts of cancer, death and environmental degradation. These authors and narrators expose their histories as their bodies are and were exposed to the politics of a patriarchal world (medical, political, pharmaceutical, global, racist, heterosexist, technological). Each of these stories links cancer, feminism and disease in some way with the degradation of the environment.
The awakening of my eco-feminist consciousness occurs in the conjoining of my cancer and mothering experiences. When I became pregnant, my concern about my own and my family’s cancer history propelled me into paralytic fear. How could I protect my fetus from my own history, from my genes? In time, I began to think my cancer might be related to environmental degradation, and that my daughter’s future and the future of all children would be (and is) imperiled and violated by toxic pollution. This shift from cancer orphan, to cancer patient, to mother, to environmental scholar and teacher, took place over many years. My story takes place both in and outside of the body, family, academia, the classroom, nature, and the culture at large. The history of these assorted rivulets and tributaries all ultimately conjoin in an ocean of what I call an ‘ecological, feminist, and mothering awareness.’
Let me begin here: I went back to college at age twenty-five, after living many years in New York City as a struggling actress and singer. The pleasure I found in reading, writing and research was immense. I always had been a voracious reader and active personal journal writer, yet studying in a focused and scholarly way was new to me. My beloved professors and mentors guided and encouraged me to go to graduate school and become an English professor. I flew through and completed my undergraduate English degree, and then immediately entered a doctoral in English program at the University of Washington.
In Seattle, I loved the bodies of fresh water, the tall evergreens, the mossy stone gardens, the flowers, the bike and walking paths, the many bookstores, the strong coffee, and the snow-peaked Mt. Rainier that emerged periodically above Red Square. The grey sultry days suited me just fine. My time at UW was intellectually intense, rigorous, and productive. My apartment was small and had little furniture—a futon, a few pillows, a desk, table and a few chairs. I read, wrote, and studied all day seven days a week—taking breaks only to teach my own classes, attend graduate seminars, or go for a jog around Greenlake. In my first year at least, it was an exquisitely disciplined life—simple, focused, clear. It was a sublime balance of books, writing, and nature. Compared to living, studying and working in Manhattan (where I lived in a four flight walk up, worked two jobs, and struggled to make ends meet, all the while studying for my BA), graduate school in the emerald city was a vacation. I couldn’t believe they were paying me to read and write and teach, and to live in such beauty!
In graduate school I found a “niche” in eighteenth- century studies, with a focus on women writers, colonial discourse, and race. I began publishing before completing my dissertation—editing and contributing to a collection called Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory and Criticism, and writing articles on other women writers and race of this age. Soon after the completion of my doctorate, I landed a tenure-track teaching position at Stony Brook University. My (academic) life appeared to be a great success.
However, several personal tragedies occurred during those years. At the end of my first year of graduate school, when I was twenty-nine, my father died from metastatic brain cancer related to two earlier Melanoma diagnoses. One month after my father’s death, my (then) father in law passed away from colon cancer. A year or so later, my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma; she also had emphysema (from smoking), heart disease, and was frequently hospitalized for pneumonia. Five years after my father’s death, my mother died from complications post-open heart surgery. Each of these deaths was traumatic beyond words. I had never known anyone close to me die, and to lose both of my parents at such a young age was devastating.
Yet another blow came with my own cancer diagnosis one year after my mother’s passing. My illness came at the tail end of my second round of job interviews and fly-backs for teaching positions. The only benefit of the cancer diagnosis was that it allowed me to quiet my life: to slow down and, quite literally, rest. I crawled underground into a chemotherapy cave to rest, vomit, and writhe from the pain of the chemicals in my bloodstream and fear of my own demise.
Somewhere in between my father’s and mother’s deaths, I married. It was strange not to have my father at the wedding, and my mother wandered alone during the party—she was lost without my dad. In the early years of my marriage I wanted to have children immediately, but my (then) husband was unsure about having children and he wanted to wait. We struggled with this conflict for years. My desire to be a mother consumed me. I did not need to hear the cultural, medical, and anti-feminist messages about the biological clock ticking. I heard the bell clanging loudly in my head every minute of the day. I was the kind of childless woman who passed a pregnant woman, baby carriage, or toddler, and wept. When friends became pregnant (everyone seemed to be getting pregnant), I would cry inconsolably. All of my life, I volunteered to baby sit and I doted on babies and kids. At social gatherings, I was the girl holding the babies—the one who wanted five kids when she grew up. Now, time was passing and I was in my mid-thirties. Losing my parents only made things worse—I wanted and needed to build my own family.
So, at thirty-five, when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, the prospect of my never becoming pregnant hit me very hard—more so than the prospect of dying. The treatment for the cancer was chemotherapy, which meant there was a good chance I would become infertile. There was no time to extract eggs, or freeze embryos. I was in the late stages of my disease and I had to begin treatment immediately. I made my husband promise that when the treatment was over, if I survived, we would have a baby. He agreed. I then went through six months of a grueling and debilitating chemotherapy treatment. It was, to put it mildly and succinctly, hell. I had 12 rounds of ABVD every two weeks. The chemo knocked me out, and just as my body would begin to recover, the next cycle came around again. With each cycle, my body became weaker, more susceptible to the chemicals, and by the last month, I was barely able to walk. In the last few months of treatment, I also had to live with the possibility that the chemotherapy might continue beyond six months, and that I might need radiation as well, as my catscans showed that the tumors were not shrinking. I don’t know what scared me more—death or more chemo. Fortunately, my six-month catscan showed the cancer was gone. It was now time to heal. I would continue with testing every three months for the foreseeable future, but the chemotherapy treatment was over for now.
A little over a year after my cancer diagnosis, the plan was for me to go back to work. I had accepted a tenure-track faculty position at SUNY Stony Brook (strangely, my diagnosis and job offer came simultaneously). Returning to the highly charged and competitive world of academia was scary after all I had been through. I was afraid to tell my new employers that I had been sick, for fear they would view me as unworthy or damaged. I associated my illness with the intensity and enormous demands of graduate school, publishing and the job search. Teaching graduate seminars and large undergraduate courses for the first time would be challenging under any circumstances, but doing this so soon post-cancer was especially challenging for me. I was physically and emotionally frail. Yet, there was the practical issue of money and work, and I had forged a profession for myself. I could not imagine throwing all of that away.
Two years into my job at Stony Brook, at long last, I became pregnant. I hid the pregnancy from my colleagues and students until the very last minute. I feared their disapproval of my ‘motherhood’—as with the cancer, it seemed like anything corporeal would, in their eyes, deem me less scholarly and lacking in commitment to ‘the profession.’ Like many women in the (academic) workplace, I feared that motherhood would diminish or mar my reputation. The general recommendation was to ‘wait until you get tenure’ to have a baby. I could not wait. I was old. I was a damaged cancer survivor.
Susan Griffin writes, “When we awaken, there is a child given to us. We are mothers. We feel a pain where the vulva has been cut. We are mothers. We feel the skin of the child is soft. The face to us in sleep is beautiful. The small body lying against our body is vulnerable. The cries move us…. We love this body, because we are a part of this body. We are mothers” (74). Now she was inside of me: a little fish swimming in my salty sea. Yet with that pleasure came fear about her future. I worried greatly, at first, about the genes she carried. All of her grandparents had had cancer, and only one lived through it (her paternal grandmother). Her mother was a cancer survivor. I felt guilty. What right did I have to give birth with my body, a polluted body, a damaged body that had coursed with chemicals? What right did I to give birth to a child, when my life span was so unpredictable, when I might die at any moment? What right did I to give birth to a child when I would pass along cancer genes?
How could I protect my fetus?
This question sat heavily with me. At first, the only protection I could think of was my own diet during pregnancy and while nursing. So I ate only organic food, took loads of vitamins, and cut out anything processed or refined. This was not hard to do as I had changed my diet completely when I was diagnosed with cancer.
My mode of protecting my fetus through a healthy ‘diet’ was of course, a good one, but it was rooted (in part) in an ideology I now have trouble with. 
This belief system is one I came away with from New Age cancer healing approaches I had learned about from my father. My father believed that we bring cancer upon ourselves and that we hold the power to heal ourselves from any illness, be it physical or emotional. His philosophy was based in the self-healing models advocated by Louise Hay, Dr. Gerald Jampolsky, Dr. Bernard Seigal, and Norman Cousins. In the ‘I caused my cancer’ and ‘I can fix my cancer’ by ‘healing myself’ movement, cancer functions as a private, individualized and personal issue. My problem with this system is that it often divides and isolates the patient and the illness from larger socio-political, economic, and environmental contexts, and lays the blame for cancer on the victim. Obviously, there are benefits to these self-help philosophies (better immediate health and well being), but the part I worry about is the narrowness of this discourse and its potential to preclude social and political environmental activism. The laying of the responsibility for cancer (both getting and curing it) on the victim, shifts the focus away from what more and more evidence shows us to be the likely cause of our cancer epidemic: toxics, chemicals, radiation, and other forms of pollution. In the view of many environmental cancer activists and scientists, we are sick because our environment is poisoned. Our environment is poisoned because of a capitalist and patriarchal system based on economic greed, domination and exploitation.
In my own case, the New Age self-help cancer philosophies caused me to feel guilty and isolated. Cancer was my fault. In my father’s case, it made him feel empowered. He took it on as a challenge –he could fix the problem himself, he could save himself, and no one could have tried harder. He did yoga twice a day, meditated, ate a strictly macrobiotic diet, worked less, ran his own cancer workshop, said healing affirmations multiple times throughout the day, and made amends to my mother and treated her kindly. These were major changes for a stereotypical cigar smoking Cadillac driving meat eating angry businessman and patriarchal husband. Suddenly, he became a serene yoga macrobiotic guru who not only changed his own life, but worked to help others as well. Perhaps, these ‘self-healing’ approaches gave him a few extra years. He did seem happier and more content with his life. Eventually, however, the cancer caught up with and killed him.
At some point, an alarm went off during my pregnancy, and something substantially shifted in my thinking about cancer and human health. I began to see the disease less as my own personal cross to bear and solve (something I could simply eat or chant away), and more as a larger socio-political and ecological problem. This awakening happened one night while I was reading the book A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr. What could be more terrifying to a pregnant woman and a cancer survivor, than a story about a childhood leukemia cluster in a town with contaminated water? At first I became terrified for my own unborn child: what if I lived in a cancer cluster like Woburn? What if, no matter now much organic broccoli I ate, the air, the soil, the water were so contaminated that this poison would enter my body anyway? Long Island (where I live) has very high cancer rates. I had heard that the water in the aquifer near Brookhaven, not far from where teach, had been contaminated with radioactive tritium from the Brookhaven Lab nuclear power plant (the lab knew of this leak and let it persist for 12 years before the information went public and the plant was shut down). What other leaks and spills might be in the water and soil that remained hidden from public knowledge?
My mind raced to my corporeal environmental history—what had I been exposed to during my life? Maybe my own cancer had been caused by toxic pollution? Was it the insecticides in the strawberry fields adjacent to my house in South Miami, Florida where I was born and lived as a small child? Was it the chemicals sprayed by the exterminator I led around in my loft building in Soho to suppress the roach infestation? Was it the toxic smog I inhaled as I rode my bike up, down, and across Manhattan, or the asbestos laden air in the Twin Towers where I had worked for two years? Was it radioactive isotopes from nuclear bomb fallout and nuclear reactor leaks throughout the U.S. (and elsewhere) that traveled up the food chain and into my body?
I then read everything I could get my hands on at the time—Silent Spring, Steingraber’s Living Downstream, Our Stolen Future. Later, after my daughter was born, Steingraber, whose daughter is about the same age as mine, published her book Having Faith. This book traces what happens to the fetus in the womb, when the mother’s body is assaulted with environmental toxins and these toxins cross the placenta, and later pass from breast milk to the baby and child. Steingraber explored this theme as she experienced and described her own pregnancy and the biology of fetal and natal development in relation to the environment around her. I read ecofeminist theory, and women’s environmental history, such as Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, and I came to understand that the exploitation of nature and the domination of women are “twin oppressions” (Karen Warren, x). Ecofeminist philosophers and historians (among others) helped me to see that cancer (and other diseases) and the degradation of the environment are integrally linked and that throughout our lives, even before we are fused as sperm and ova into embryos and fetuses, we are assaulted with toxics, chemicals, pollutants and radiation. Our bodies, all living bodies, are linked with the earth’s ecosystem, and this ecosystem is polluted. Our earth is sick and so we, too, are sick.
Cancer was the end of innocence for me, the end of safety or trust in my body, nature, life, and family. It was my exile from Eden, so to speak. My pregnancy was a moment of great change. I was happy, I was filled with life, but I was afraid: another being lived inside me. My death would be her death, and my illness would be her pain and suffering. A polluted earth would and does harm both of us, all of us. I must care not just for my own biological child, but for all children and all people, all living creatures. How can I protect my fetus? My womb is the earth’s womb. My child is every child. These questions led me here. This problem drives me in my research, teaching, writing, and in my life. I want to be part of the ‘waking up’ from this fugue state of ecological unconsciousness. I know that we must all wake up and act to halt the destruction. A mother’s womb is the earth’s womb.
In the end, the awakening of my maternal ecofeminist consciousness led, not surprisingly, to a major shift in focus in both my scholarship and teaching. My pedagogical approach includes taking feminism, mothering and ecology into our lives in a direct ways—not only by reading literature and nonfiction criticism on ecology and feminism, and/or watching environmental films, but by gardening, hiking, birding, looking at the various environments we live in, turning off technology, using technology to learn about ecological processes, journaling and participating in environmental activism. The response of my students to this work has been overwhelmingly positive and often deeply moving. One notable accomplishment of my students is the creation of Stony Brook’s first organic garden. We are not a West Coast environmentally savvy campus community by any stretch of the imagination (we might as well be on another planet from a Berkeley, Santa Cruz, or Portland), yet this makes my investment in these classes and students all the more urgent. Education is key. If effective change is to come, all young people must learn about the hubris of man’s violation of the earth.
One day, after one of my first ecofeminism classes, a student asked to speak with me privately. We sat outside under a blooming cherry blossom tree and, with her hands shaking, she held out a well-worn photograph. The student tearfully explained that this was a picture of her mother who died many years ago from cancer: “I grew up in Brookhaven, right near the nuclear reactor you told us about. Before this class, I had no idea about that tritium leak. None of us did. I couldn’t understand why my mom died at such a young age, why so many of our neighbors died from cancer.” My own eyes filled with tears as she spoke. I ached for her loss—it is a loss I knew and know only too well. Then, with sad resignation, she said, “Now, I understand.”
So I ache and write for the motherless girl, for the fish, animals, and birds in the poisoned Gulf, for the polluted seas, for the dolphins, for the sky, for the rivers, for my neighbor Carl with terminal lung cancer, for the whales, for the wolves, for the panthers, for Molly-a child friend- in remission from leukemia, for my parents, for the irradiated deserts and Chernobyl, for the soldiers poisoned with Depleted Uranium, for the Polar bears, for the blind horses, for all the creatures too many to name, for our blue, blue planet. May we forestall the massacre, may we halt this annihilation of the earth.
--Heidi Hutner, SUNY Stony Brook
This essay is forthcoming in Maternal Pedagogies, edited by Deborah Byrd and Fiona Green, Demeter Press, 2011.
Also, this is part of my forthcoming book: Polluting Mama: Ecofeminism, Film and Literature, Demeter Press, 2012.
This essay is forthcoming in Maternal Pedagogies, edited by Deborah Byrd and Fiona Green, Demeter Press, 2011.
Also, this is part of my forthcoming book: Polluting Mama: Ecofeminism, Film and Literature, Demeter Press, 2012.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
Colborn, Theo; Dumanoski, Diane; Myers, John Peterson. Our Stolen Future. New York: Plume, 1997.
Evans, Erina, and Grant, Caroline, Mama PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2008.
Griffin, Susan. Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 2000.
Mason, Mary Ann; and Ekman, Eve Mason, Mothers on the Fast Track: How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Merchant, Carolyn, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, (New York: Harper and Row, 1976.
----Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World. New York and London: Routledge, 2005.
Steingraber, Sandra, Living Downstream. New York: Vintage, 1988.
----------Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhoodd. New York: Berkely Books, 2001.
Warren, Karen “Ecological Feminist Philosophies: An Overview of the Issues.” Ecological Feminist Philosophies. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Hypatia, Indiana UP, 1996.
Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. New York: Vintage, 1991.
 Some interesting new collections on the topic of mothers and academia are Mama PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life, and Mothers on the Fast Track. Also, Andrea O’Reilly is conducting a full-blown study on mothers and academia.
 The American Cancer Society promotes a diet high in fiber and fresh vegetables and fruits, but still does not recommend organic food as a cancer preventative. However, the recent President’s Cancer Panel argues that children, in particular, are susceptible to toxics and recommends feeding children organic food free from chemical pollutants and hormone disrupters; it also recommends a long list of ways children should be protected from exposure to toxics in the home, schools, playgrounds and other environments. This report is remarkable—it is the first governmental report to directly support the links between pollution and cancer and to call for major change and prevention.
 For two excellent definitions of ecofeminism and ecofeminist theory, see Karen J. Warren, “What are Ecofeminists Saying?” 21-41, in Ecofeminist Philosophy; and Carolyn Merchant’s chapter, “Ecofeminism,” in Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World.