Scars. We all have them in one form or another. Some are visible, cutting across our surface, puckering the skin and interrupting the elasticity of before. Some are deeper or even figurative and cut across our life’s energies, interrupting that elasticity as well. We carry them around like secret travel pouches to store our valuable experiences. We own them and they change us.
I have a few visible scars: the six inch, nearly invisible now, reminder of exploratory surgery when I was nineteen; two on the end of my left index finger where a bead pin machine tore through the tip once and years later when I pruned it with a saw; a U-shaped scar on my right ring finger and the long sloping scar on the right side of my chest with two small dashes under my arm where the lymph drainage tubes came out.
Of those visible scars one might imagine that the scar that makes me most uncomfortable is the mastectomy scar but that is not so. My friend Mary says it looks like Mount Erebus in Antarctica, the southern-most active volcano on the planet. I think that’s cool and if you want to know what my scar looks like you can google it and learn something too.
The scar that most bothers me is the ring finger one. That incident still makes me cringe. I severed the tendon on the top and the scar wraps around almost the whole way. I’m lucky that I didn’t lose the finger. It is mildly shrimp-shaped now and doesn’t have the flexibility of the others . I’ve always used my hands a lot. Now I really can’t play an open-hole flute or even a larger recorder because I don’t have the reach. Tiny hands anyway. That’s maybe the one moment in my life I’d like a do-over for.
Still, that incident came after the mastectomy, so at that time, Mount Erebus was the most traumatic. The first time I looked at it, just returned home from the hospital and in need of bandaging, I looked like a pathetic, broken thing, hollowed out on one side, but with cool Borg-like tubes coming out from under my arm. My arm that suddenly I could move only about six inches away from my body.
Lucky me, Mary was living with me at the time and the moment became a precious memory of the two of us in my tiny bathroom at 11PM, me in my panties and Mary in her nightgown, laughing at the sight in the mirror. Laughing and crying and being innovative with bandage material. Feminine napkins are very absorbent, as are eye pads. The next day we went to the emergency room to get my oozing Borg tubes checked and the nurse asked if we were nurses too because of the excellent bandaging job. How cool is that?
I thought when I was fully healed that I would get a tattoo to enhance my scar, then I would design clothes that would reveal the beauty, but I still get hive-like reactions around the scar and it itches, and I like the Mount Erebus silhouette and the idea that my scar has volcanic references. I’m fired up about life.
I’m writing about scars because of a letter to the editor in the April edition of The Sun magazine. I love The Sun but it can be intense so lately I haven’t been reading cover to cover like I used to. But Ann said I should check out the interview this month and before I got to it I saw this letter from someone complaining about a photograph from the January issue.
The photograph was one of three of a woman who had a mastectomy and was undergoing chemotherapy. She didn’t think that she would live out the year and asked the photographer to photograph her and her mastectomy because,”no one wants to look at it, even though almost everyone has known someone with breast cancer. I wanted to show people what it really is.”
The photograph was on the contents page and showed her with a cloth wrapped over her shoulders and open in the front to reveal part of a breast and part of the scar. The letter writer objected to being forced to view this and expressed a preference of avoidance, of not wanting to ‘see’ it, and that the picture was ‘rubbing in’ the cancer reality that ‘we all dread’.
I have been an asymmetrical person since June of 1997 when I had my mastectomy. I have never worn a prosthesis. To get a properly fitting one costs a lot of money and my medical didn’t cover that nor did I want to disguise my asymmetrical figure. I wanted to engage conversation, to bring awareness to the fact that even someone as young as I was at the time (43), could have breast cancer and feel good about myself with that scar.
I feel that for many years the fact of breast cancer has been conveniently disguised by reconstructive surgery and prosthetics. I imagined all the women carefully hiding behind that armour, unable to recognize themselves, and maybe feeling less attractive and alone in that place and not knowing who else might be there to talk with. We talk about breast cancer much more these days but still don’t really see it and seeing has a much more visceral effect.
A year after my surgery I was in Jasper National Park shooting the breeze with the rafting dudes. I’d been licensed as a raft guide on the Athabasca River years before so I was one of the old hands compared to some of the younger wild guys. One of the young dudes had just had major surgery of some kind so I said to him, I’ll show you my scar if you’ll show me yours.” He refused, maybe a bit shy, and all the others who of course knew me and knew what scar I had to show, jumped all over him (figuratively) and said, ‘What are you, stupid? Don’t you know where her scar is?”
We laughed and the moment passed. I can picture that day and that happy feeling of camaraderie and my confidence in my self and I realize that there are some good, heart experiences stored in that scar’s pouch.