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Art on the Front Lines

Barbra Amesbury speaks out
on breast cancer, art and activism

Copyright 1995 by Lynna Landstreet. This column originally appeared in Xtra magazine. Published by Pink Triangle Press, 491 Church Street, 2nd Floor, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4Y 2C6.

urvivors, in Search of a Voice: The Art of Courage (see my review and reflections elsewhere on this site) is the brainchild of two women who may be Toronto's most respectable lesbian couple: Barbra Amesbury and Joan Chalmers of the Woodlawn Foundation, one of Canada's highest-profile arts organizations. Over cappuccino in the kitchen of their Rosedale house, I spoke to Amesbury about the show, and the fledgling breast cancer activist movement.

"We have to ask all the women who went to the barricades at the start of the AIDS movement to come home now," she said. "I won't compare diseases, but it's like this: the western front's taken care of. We have enough troops there now. What we need is reinforcements on the eastern front. And unless women stand up for women, it's not going to happen."

Breast cancer activists have a lot to fight for, including improvements in the potentially deadly treatments still in use. "In the last thirty years, treatment has not changed. Radiation still burns, it still kills the good with the bad, and chemotherapy is still a search and destroy mission. The women who have had it pumped through their veins know that. Their veins collapse, and their immune system is destroyed forever. Women will tell you "I would never do chemotherapy again, because when it came back, I had nothing to fight it with.'" And even those treatments aren't always easy to come by. "I can't stand the fact that a woman has to wait twelve weeks for radiation, and maybe that's when the tumour's moving. That could be the difference between life and death."

One of the challenges Amesbury and Chalmers faced with the show was whether to take money from corporate donors who might be responsible for releasing the carcinogens that cause the problem in the first place. "We had lots of opportunities to take money from sponsors, especially now that it's a hit. But they're all suspect, and that's why we paid for it ourselves. It's incredible, the polluters out there, and it's a real conflict. I believe that the environment is the biggest cause of cancer. You don't have to be a brain scientist to figure out that the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink are killing us."

The show, and the breast cancer movement itself, have particular relevance to lesbians, since research has indicated we may be at greater risk of the disease. But while lesbians have been central in breast cancer activism in the US, Amesbury has found a dearth of dykes in the Canadian movement. The few organizations we do have, like LACES (Lesbians And Cancer Education and Support) don't impress her. "They're pretty low key. And they can't stay insular like that; they've got to come into the other groups. In the States, lesbians are in the forefront of every organization! And not just sick lesbians, but well lesbians. It's ridiculous to think that you can't belong to the club until you get sick. As women, every one of us could be next in line."

All of which brings to mind one of the flaws many have cited in the show: the lack of any overt lesbian content. Amesbury has little patience with that complaint. "All women are at risk. Everything in that show resembles every woman. But we didn't dictate that; we just created the environment for it to happen. It really was the survivors who controlled the issue, and yes, there were gay women involved.

"We have to stand as one. That's why lesbians should come out of their organizations and join the other groups that exist here in Toronto -- like the Alliance of Breast Cancer Survivors. In the AIDS movement there wasn't any of this "Oh, and what class are you from?' But in the women's movement we get into all this divisive bullshit, and it's time we put all that away. End of the game, everybody. Leave your egos and your political beliefs at the door. There's no time for infighting -- women are dying."

And it's not just lesbians, either. "Gay men should get involved too. We fought for you; now it's payback time. Their mothers die. Their sisters die. Their female friends, who were on the front lines with AIDS, are dying now. There's supposed to be this bond between gay men and women -- so where the hell is it? I was there for you; why aren't you here for me? The gay community is a powerful community! Let's bring our energies and our expertise to this fight."


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