Cancer, “Positivity” and Misogynoir

CW: Cancer, End Stage Cancer, Realities of Multiple Myeloma, Depression, Misogynoir, Racism.

I wrote this blog but never published it, back when my mother was still fighting for her life. She passed away January 14, 2019 after a nine and a half year long battle with cancer. I was frustrated with all of the misogynoir my mother and I had to deal with, as in America, a strong black woman stereotype attaches to black women and keeps perpetuating itself even when we are dying, or those close to us are dying. My mom had to be a strong black woman until her dying breath. I had to be a strong black woman as she lay dying.

What follows below the break is what I wrote and how I felt in late September 2018, edited to update it to reflect that she has passed on. Please don’t read it if you feel you might personalize my feelings of frustration over my mom’s death.

Carolyn and Sumiko Saulson flip off the camera at Windsor Care in Vallejo

Mom and I at Windsor Care in Vallejo

So, in May, at BayCon 2018, my mother gave me the bad news: her cancer was no longer responding well to chemo. Her doctor was going to try an older chemo med she’d been on previously, Revlimid. Sadly, it didn’t work either.

In June, she went into the hospital with respiratory issues. Some of you may know that she had a close brush with death around my birthday in March of 2017. That was due to a cardiac issue, as she is seventy years old now and has comorbid conditions along with her cancer. The heart disease and a-fibrillation is related to high blood pressure. So last year she almost died of heart disease. They were able to stabilize her. She always was a fighter.

Since she is a fighter – and she has miraculously pulled through any number of times – when I first became concerned about her latest battle with cancer back in May 2018, I got a lot of “your mother is strong” kind of comments. A lot of people are unaware of how culturally tone deaf it is to repeatedly refer to a black woman as strong when she is facing a major crisis. Yet this notion of me, and my mother, as “strong” persisted. It persists to until the day she died, and many people had no idea how serious my mom’s health problems were because they didn’t want to know or understand.

Fundraisers were going around for mom’s end of life expenses and her burial and people still thought she was “getting better”… she made some recovery from the seizure, stroke and heart attack but she was never going to recover from cancer because they were refusing to give her chemo. They said the chemo wasn’t working anymore.

Mom was not getting better. She was running out of treatment options. Her cancer was in its final stages. Whenever the family got excited or happy about some sort of improvement it was because she just bought a little time with us – not because she was going to pull through. All we could do was buy her time, but every time we did we had to face the reality that her quality of life had declined considerably over the past grip of months.

When I tried to talk about that, people either issued still more platitudes about how I need to “let her go” or, unfathomably, acted like my mom’s cancer wasn’t that serious and gossiped that I was being a “drama queen” or exaggerating mom’s terminal condition. Others were so in denial that she was dying that they said I was being negative and babbled about homeopathic medicine, medicinal marijuana, prayer, and cayenne pepper.

This all boiled down to ways in which my mother’s death was taxing and inconvenient for other people and they just needed me to shut up about it because was depressing them. And please don’t read ANOTHER WORD if you are going to come out of reading this with any sort of need for me to help YOU deal with MY mom’s death or YOUR feelings, because this is me talking about me. I need to.

Carolyn Saulson, Yvonne Matthews, Sumiko Saulson

Mom, aunt Yvonne and me in 1993


It has gotten to the point where I no longer reach out for any moral or emotional support. I just post prettied up photos of mom with Snapchat filters and journal about what movie was am watching with her or song was am singing to her, so I could keep up some sort of benign dialog with people in order to have some sort of social contact with people outside of my mom. I had to figure out how I could communicate with others without feeling like my pain, my family’s pain, and my emotional needs were tedious and draining for them. At first, a few people thought the pictures were morbid but after a while, some people got what I was doing.

I had a partner dump me because my need for emotional support during my mother’s death was apparently “manipulative.” Gossipy idiots who decided that my mother’s failure to die in a timely manner meant I am being “dramatic.”  Another partner got drunk the night mom had a heart attack and ran down the street acting crazy and wound up in jail. It seemed like everyone was more upset about Mom dying than I was.

Except my brother, and nieces, who were in the trenches along with me.

Minimizing death isn’t “positivity” it’s just your own personal fragility and entitlement kicking in, telling you that people who have real life crises are “problematic”… if you are someone who makes your personal relationship drama more important than someone dying , yes, this is about you. Constantly calling black women “strong” to get out of offering us any real moral support isn’t just toxic, it’s racist. Ignoring black suffering in order to shield the dominant culture’s fragility is the cornerstone of misogynoir, something a bunch of people who think they are liberal sometimes have an excess of.

My mom was my mom, not someone else’s inspiration porn – not a “strong black” woman who could inspire people by stoically clinging to life. I should have nor should I now be required to be likewise stoic, unemotional, positive, and more concerned with the feelings of others than my own. Even as my mother lay dying, I was to assume the caretaker, nanny, “mammy” role assigned to all black women in relationship to others.

Is this the way white women are treated when they are dying or grieving?

~ by Sumiko Saulson on March 3, 2019.

7 Responses to “Cancer, “Positivity” and Misogynoir”

  1. Thank you very much for telling this out. How rough the struggle to remain social while so much suffering is going on… I’m both appalled while nodding at the bizarre actions of others to deflect the crisis.

    I cannot answer for Caucasian women on the side of this as I have not (yet) experienced it, but I do know that much in the way of deep suffering is often laced with people throwing band-aids around in both speech and actions, as well as dismissive behaviour which makes the situation worse. At about any time I see suffering I always extend a listening ear as I can see no other way to help.

    • Thank you so much for reading and also for commenting. You are very correct about band aids I guess people don’t know what to do so they do token things. Token things are fine if they don’t expect them to fix everything, but when they get mad because you aren’t healed instantly by the band aid, that is frustrating.

  2. The need/expectation to keep your chin up and stay strong when you’re in the middle of trauma/death/illness is forced on many women. There is that stereotype of the strong black woman that you are suffering though so here’s this:
    You get to not handle this well.
    You get to break down and not be okay with this.
    Your mom died. You don’t have to keep your chin up.
    Yeah, you don’t need my permission here, but sometimes hearing that from someone else can help.
    I am so sorry that you lost your mom. Even after nine years of her illness, it was still too soon.

  3. Very true.

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