My mastectomy scars started out as the midnight blue of my surgeon’s pen, deftly scrawling the path of his scalpel on the white canvas of my chest. After he came and drew and left, I found myself in front of the mirror over the sink of the pre-op bathroom, staring at the roadmap he’d sketched. I was met with an array of curved lines and straight lines, dictating symmetry, outlining what would be kept and not kept, measuring how long and how wide and how far down.
After the surgery, I shuffled from my hospital bed to the bathroom mirror and shut myself in. I wadded up the faded hospital gown under my chin, uncovering my new, flat chest, with long, thick strips of white tape on either side, holding together the severed edges of skin underneath. I imagined those blue lines, drawn on just hours before, being traced, sliced, and splitting apart. I imagined a red river flowing up and being caught by dark green surgical towels, circular pools spreading out and soaking cotton fibers. I imagined the pulling apart of my skin, the hollowing out, and the careful, complex art of putting it back together.
Later, at home, the thick white strips finally fell off to expose my healing incisions. When I closed my eyes against my reflection, my fingertips could still find the start and stop of the scalpel, ridges riding up and scar corners pulled taut and stitched, leaving small puckers of skin where my nipples used to be. I traced and retraced these purple trenches, finding their beginnings and endings, wondering how touching numb skin could hurt so much.
And when I could finally sleep on my side again, my husband returned to the comforting ritual of curling up behind me, his arms overlapping to swallow my frame, his hands tucked into the space where my breasts used to be. I would lay awake in the dark and imagine that emptiness being reconstructed. It would be the closest to normal that I could hope for. It would be the best chance either of us would have at learning to forget.
Months later, my surgeon again drafted a plan on my skin. This time, his pen left behind a blueprint for the building of something, instead of taking something away. To me, it was the reconstruction of myself and of my life. I pictured wholeness after this surgery; I pictured beauty. I’d spent months both avoiding and seeking out mirrors; scanning each reflection for who I used to be, and never quite finding her.
With reconstruction surgery, the freshly formed scars on either side of my chest were again traced and split and sliced open, then stitched back together. Scars within scars. The healing brought them deeper this time, and darker. Again, I found myself in front of the mirror in the post-op bathroom, under a halo of neon light. A surgical bra obstructed a clear view of my surgeon’s work, so instead I leaned in over the sink, searching for something else. The artificial spotlight amplified my pale skin and exaggerated the depth of the shadows under my eyes. I was met with the gaze of the same stranger I’d been finding since the beginning of this nightmare. Who was this person? Tears began to form as I started to realize that reconstructing my sense of self was not as simple as waking up from my last surgical sleep.
My scars tell my story; they are the documentation of my endeavor to rid my body of this thing called cancer. I have collected 13 total, and I can point to each one and recall the reason why – core needle biopsy, lumpectomy, sentinel node biopsy, port placement, 4 surgical drains, PICC line, 2 more surgical drains, and, of course, mastectomies with reconstruction. This is not the body I had two years ago, and I am not the me I was two years ago. I realize that I need to be kind to myself. Eventually, I will begin see these scars not as reminders of what was taken from me, but as reminders that I made it.
I’m learning that the emotional scars I’ve accumulated through this experience are harder to quantify. They are harder to count and harder to heal, especially when others aren’t aware they even exist. Now that I no longer look sick, now that I’m back to work and have hair to wash again and can fill out a bra and sleep on my side and lift my arms overhead, I feel so much pressure within myself to just move on (whatever that means after going through something like this). When I am asked how I am doing, I instinctively say “Great!” But I am not always great. I wonder why my heart and mind have not caught up with my body. I wonder if this is what survivorship is supposed to feel like.
I still don’t recognize myself in the mirror, and there is a loneliness in pretending. For this, as well, I know that I need to be kind to myself. I don’t think anyone wakes up one day to find themselves suddenly, miraculously, “Great!” Instead, there is a gradual coming-to-terms with the upheaval cancer has caused in my life and the disorientation I feel as I try to make my way back to normal. There is a deliberate decision that must be made to accept, and to love, and to be thankful for whoever I find in the mirror each morning. It took time for my physical scars to heal, and it will take more time for them to fade. I suppose it is the same for the uncertainty and fear that I carry within me for my future, and the sadness and grief I am feeling for what I’ve lost. It must take time to heal heart and soul, as well as skin.
It must take time.
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Do you have physical scars, emotional scars or both from your cancer fight? How have you dealt with them? Share your comments below.