Dr. Monique Gary, 40, Breast Cancer Surgeon
As I try to make sense of all of the intersections of my life, I think of Audre Lorde.
I’m Black, queer, Christian, a scientist, a researcher, a woman...I’ve been thinking about all of those things and what it means for my legacy.
I used to be this kid who would take things apart -- the iron, the radio -- and I could put it back together... sometimes. [laughs]
I couldn’t help but combine the love of the inner-workings of things with wanting to help people who were sick. My grandmother had diabetes. I used to want to learn how to take her blood sugar or her blood pressure. I always said she was my first patient.
There’s only one of me in the city. One Black female breast cancer surgeon. My medical and social activism is taking shape because of my career.
Audre Lorde stands out to me because the journey and the struggle that she had with breast cancer had not really been documented from a Black feminist queer perspective before. The movement of breast cancer is more recently becoming more inclusive and recognizing the need to address the disparity in cancer mortality. They call it “health equity.” A huge buzz word now.
But reading [Lorde’s] cancer journals and seeing from her lens what it’s like to be a Black queer feminist woman with a disease, with a cancer that now really stigmatizes you in a totally different way. It adds just another layer of stress onto a life that’s already so stressed just by being who you are.
One of her quotes from The Cancer Journals that stayed with me was:
“I have found that battling despair does not mean closing my eyes to the enormity of the tasks of affecting change nor ignoring the strength in the barbarity of the forces aligned against us. It means teaching, surviving, and fighting with the most important resource I have: myself.”
My mother was 29 and in a very abusive relationship when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was very advanced. I remember watching her skin turn dark. I remember her wearing more wigs. She used to wear these fabulous wigs, great shoes and she was a total glamazon. Diagnosed too late and gone too soon. She didn’t make it to 30. One thing people don’t know about me is that I wear great shoes in her honor and her memory.
I think our relationship with health and with wellness is a little bit skewed. Wellness requires proactivity, it requires intentionality, and so helping Black women to see that I think is important. We need to make it a community effort to seek out wellness and prevention, making it easy and accessible.
If I’m in the hospital as a patient, I don’t tell people what I do. I want to see how they treat me. I want to see what questions they ask me. I want to see how I am perceived and received and the care that I am getting when you don’t know that I am a physician.
When I go to the emergency department, are you listening to my symptoms? Or are you deciding what’s going on with me once you look at me? Or do you think I’m being dramatic? We see so much of that. There’s a lot of work for us to do around educating hospitals and health systems on how to care for Black patients.
It’s about educating patients about their bodies and educating Black women on how to listen to their own bodies. To pay attention to themselves. Then educating physicians and health systems about how to address our care. All that needs to be done by Black doctors and I feel the pressure, because there aren’t enough of us to do it.
There’s work to be done to decrease our invisibility in our healthcare system, but the real work of helping us to be more visible and intentional with ourselves, that’s an intrinsic work. That our community has to do. We have to value Black women enough to provide a way to do that.
That’s where wellness begins. Wellness doesn’t come from the hospitals, it doesn’t come from government policies. Wellness comes from checking in with yourself about your stress levels, your diet, how you feel physically and mentally. Self-care doesn’t look like manis and pedis. It looks like saying, “You know what, I’m going to bed at 11 o’clock, no matter what.”
It looks like saying, “I know I want this chocolate cake, but I’m going to eat this fruit.”
Back in 1985, for domestic abuse calls, police generally wouldn’t get involved. We would call them because this guy was beating our mother and strangling her. She was a beautiful and vibrant woman, and he was using his power to take that away from her, one blow at a time. So we would hide, and call the police and they’d come to the door and say, “Is this a domestic?” “Everything okay there? Ma'am, are you all right?” “Sir, everything good here?” “Alright, see you later.”
And they would leave.
What do you imagine would happen after that door closed in the house?
Abuse separates us from ourselves. We look in the mirror and we don’t recognize who we’re looking at. We don’t want to be in tune with what’s going on with our bodies when we’re being beaten, when we’re being raped, and when we’re being dehumanized. It is not so different with a cancer diagnosis. It is hard to tell someone to love themselves with scars and hair loss and darkened skin and nails when they didn’t know what loving themselves felt like before cancer.
In regards to Black love, the days of “struggle love: are over. It keeps women like my mother trapped in cycles of abuse. In same-sex relationships we have many, many layers to unpack to love healthily. But it is possible. I have to believe that.
All of this is endemic, but not irreparable. A lot of our approaches to how we are going to repair these things have to come from a position of love. We have to love ourselves and each other. I think that’s going to be the starting point for the mind, body and spirit.
Dr. Gary’s Revolutionary Picks:
“Audre Lorde stands out to me because the journey and the struggle that she had with breast cancer had not really been documented from a Black feminist queer perspective before. The movement of breast cancer is more recently becoming more inclusive and recognizing the need to address the disparity in cancer mortality. They call it “health equity.” A huge buzz word now. But reading [Lorde’s] cancer journals and seeing from her lens what it’s like to be a Black queer feminist woman with a disease, with a cancer that now really stigmatizes you in a totally different way. It adds just another layer of stress onto a life that’s already so stressed just by being who you are.”