A Scar Story

I recently started watching the show Sons of Anarchy for the first time (another Amazon Prime “Oh I always meant to watch that!” sort of thing). It’s really good so far, with a high caliber cast and twisted drama – also, having an uncle who is an actual biker I like to pretend I understand some of what is going on!

Something I noticed right away, as most viewers of the show also do no doubt, is the heart surgery scar that biker matriarch Gemma (played by the amazing Katey Segal) has. Many of the men on the show have scars as well, but Gemma’s is somehow bolder, more in your face. She often wears low cut tops without covering it (she sometimes has a necklace on but more often than not it doesn't cover it). I’m enjoying the show but I admit I have spent a lot of time looking at her scar, questioning how realistic it is that she wears it with such pride, how awesome and fearless that is, yet also unusual to me.

I also have a long vertical scar on my chest, virtually identical to many heart surgery patients', having had my chest cut open for a cancer biopsy almost 11 years ago. It is actually a Y-shaped scar, because the first biopsy was the traditional type, a diagonal 3 inch scar across the top of one…erm, boob. When that did not work (my tumour was located in an awkward position in the center of my chest), they went in through my side, where I have another smaller scar. It’s my “cute” scar – if I had to pick a favourite scar that one wins, hands down! That biopsy tissue was also uninformative ("Necrotic", they called it, also known as dead, which grossed me out a bit. Tumours are gross generally).

Anyway…my tall, blue eyed pillar of health surgeon (if you think having a cute doctor is bad, imagine having one who has cut you open several times over and still looks you in the eye kindly like you are not just a slab of flesh), apologetically informed me that after the two unsuccessful biopsies that they were going to have to open me up to get at the mass, old school. That I would be in the ICU after the surgery and there was a minor chance of death and all that fun stuff. In true spunky TV movie of the week cancer patient style I told him to get as much of the b*st*rd out as they could (OK maybe I didn't swear). Every time I had to participate in these very life or death adult conversations I began to feel more and more ill equipped; at the age of 28 it all seemed a bit too surreal and dramatic for someone with my life experience. Three surgeries in as many weeks was beginning to feel a bit bordering on the cliffhanger with a slippery edge. But everyone was trying to be cheerful despite themselves, because what else can anyone do. Cards were played, Christmas plans delayed.

Well at any rate the surgery went well. I did go into dangerously low blood pressure and require blood transfusions, but all things considered it was a success – we had a result, at last. My surgeon could only get so much of the mass (they only call it a tumour after they know for sure, because “mass” is way less scary!), because of its pesky location near my vital organs.

The aftermath of dealing with my surgical wound was left as a separate matter, almost an afterthought with everything else that was happening. When cancer is knocking on the door, a minor thing like a surgical chest wound can get brushed aside slightly. Oh sure, I was informed how to clean it, I was given much morphine. But the physical and mental shock of having my chest split open and sewn back together was the most tangible reminder that my body was in a frightening, seemingly rapid state of decline. Whereas the cancer at that point felt like some out of body experience, I had to deal with this wound whether I wanted to or not. It was frankly horrific, its black stitches reminding me of Jeff Goldblum sprouting insect hairs in The Fly. Changing the dressing felt like covering up some sort of horrible secret window into the place where the bad thing was inside me. I had my husband help when it was early stages and I couldn't do it myself, but it all felt too grimly real at times for a married couple of just two years.

I was in a respectable amount of pain (I had codeine prescribed but it made me nauseous), and had to sleep sitting up for weeks afterwards. I could not move without feeling it, feeling as though one wrong move and my body would simply split open like a half cracked walnut – an irrational fear, but one I imagine other patients who have had the surgery might also feel. Alongside the next several months of cancer treatment (Primary Mediastinal Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a rare, aggressive sub-type that mainly affects young women), I would have this scar to try to tend to and heal. It was ugly and slightly ragged, but to my surgeon’s credit, not raised. On top of the imminent chemo beautifying bald-ness, I now was a lady with a big ass scar.

Accepting the "new" me:

I’m certainly not alone in having cancer or other illness or injury leave its mark on me, it happens to thousands of people every year, often in far worse ways than I've had to deal with. My scar actually healed as nicely as it possibly could have I think. I did use various fade creams but I can't say I noticed much of a difference with any of them, even the very expensive ones.

In the grand scheme of things after everything is over and done with, it’s not a big deal. You like to think that you are the only one who sees your scars, but then you catch someone staring despite themselves, despite your efforts to hide it, and you cannot help but feel exposed, vulnerable. I have a tiny blue dot tattoo in the middle of my scar from radiotherapy (quite why it had to be BLUE I have no idea), which makes it that bit more of a focal point. It's human curiosity to look at scars, I get it. I assume most strangers would look at my scar and maybe presume I've had heart surgery, and it makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. My surgery was not that big of a deal comparatively, I don’t want an excess of misplaced pity. It sometimes feels like my scars are telling a story of their own that have nothing to do with me.

A few years ago I was having intermittent pains from the wires still inside my chest, and was able to get an appointment to see my original surgeon. He said that he could take the wires out with a minor surgery, and my scar, my new scar, would be much smaller and nicer than my current scar. This alone enticed me very much. But in the end I decided against it – the pains died down, and in truth any surgery, no matter how minor, is not something I would now go into willy nilly. I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky so far, and life with my scar is not so unbearable that I’m willing to take semi-drastic measures to improve it.

The mantra most people hear with regard to their scars is “Wear them with pride!” and while I do believe in principle, it’s not always easy in practice. I mainly only buy necklaces that will hide my scar. I rarely wear anything low cut, and if I do I have a heavy duty coverage necklace going on or a camisole. Bathing suits are a nightmare (well that’s just a given anyway!). I don’t bother hiding it when I’m not out in public, but nor do I ever flaunt it so boldly the way Gemma in Sons of Anarchy does. And that makes me feel slightly ashamed of myself for not being braver. Because it’s easier to hide it, to try to blend in, to be “normal”. Of course, "she’s just a character in a TV show, it’s a prosthetic scar, what do they even know about how it feels to be a woman with such a scar?” I initially thought. But then I read that the costume designer made a choice for the character to wear it with pride, to not hide it, and even that small thing gave me pause for thought.

Being so far out from cancer, successfully, (knock wood spit spit), I think most people expect you to just forget about it completely. And some days I do, just about. But I always have a permanent reminder in the mirror, something that makes me feel stronger despite my efforts to conceal it. I’m beginning to wonder if my now automatic ritual of dressing around my scar is maybe something to try to let go of a little bit. Hiding it is a conscious effort, and maybe if I stop trying to I will stop worrying what other people think when they see it so much. It’s a part of me, it’s my story, and what does it matter what anyone else thinks? I am proud of what it represents after all, so maybe I should just let go of all the other stuff, the vanity, the insecurity, the fear of being "different". It shouldn't matter, so I am going to try my best from now on to be a bit braver about it. If people want to stare, let them stare. Because inside I feel like a survivor, like Gemma: a bad ass biker chick(!) who has been there, done that. So I think maybe letting other people see my scars is not something I want to be afraid of anymore. As the saying goes, I earned them, and for that I have no shame.

~~~~Scar Project has a site that is really inspiring for anyone dealing with accepting their scars.~~~~~

Me and my scar

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