The part I didn’t anticipate was coping with the scar.
I knew there would be a scar. I knew it would be fairly large, and I knew it would sit just above my collarbone. Prior to surgery I didn’t waste any time worrying about having a scar, as I have never been a particularly beautiful woman who traded on appearances, and have never been especially vain, so worrying about such a thing seemed too trivial and silly. I was more worried about the cancer side of the equation rather than the scar side. But the scar is there, and it needs to be coped with just the same.
While in the hospital, I didn’t want to look at it at all. It was covered in a huge (and largely useless) dressing overnight, which came off the following day. I had no idea what my throat looked like. I felt no pain, but something told me I wasn’t ready to know exactly how bad it was. Better to just concentrate on not ripping anything open. While in the bathroom at the hospital, I didn’t bother looking in mirrors.
Just before I left the hospital I discovered that I had a large oval sticker over the whole thing, with surgi strips neatly covering the wound. I learned this because they took the sticker off. Some friends had come to visit with me and they were in awe how good it looked. So I went into the bathroom and looked. It was a bit bloody, but not much. Just strips of adhesive with a bit of blood on the inside, stuck across my throat like an ultra-modern necklace. I didn’t think it looked that hot, but I was glad my friends were so positive about it.
At first, I didn’t think of it as a scar. I called it the incision. It seemed too soon to call it a scar, and in my mind it still belonged to my surgeon. He made it, after all. It was his handiwork. If this is a grand battle against cancer, I’m hardly the fighter; I’m just the battle ground, he’s the one wielding the mighty sword of clean surgical steel. He made the incision, conducted the battle, and tidied up the theatre of war with some dissolving thread and surgi strips, and called it a day. So at first it was the incision. Distant, belonging to others, a third party location.
Once the surgi strips came off a week later, and I got my first real glimpse of the thing. I was uncomfortable looking at it at first. In fact, I didn’t look at it. The strips came off, my surgeon didn’t offer me a mirror (thank god), I put a scarf over it and left to meet my parents in the waiting room. The first person to actually see it was my friend Mindy, whom I ran into while dropping off some paperwork at work. She said it looked “great”, though of course a little red and swollen. “Great.” I wasn’t sure I was ready to face it at that point, let alone follow my surgeon’s orders of washing it and putting cream on it twice a day. When I finally got home that evening, about three hours later, I did finally look at it. It didn’t look so bad. It had healed far faster than I had expected. It was a long, relatively even red line. There was a very very thin long scab running all the way across it, making it feel slightly sharp. There’s a tiny dimple on one side, possibly a stray stitch, but otherwise it only gives you the slightest feeling that I was pulled back together again by human hands, that slight unevenness that indicates something a bit unnatural. Nothing you can exactly put your finger on. It was then I started thinking of it as the scar.
But it wasn’t my scar. It was this new body part, this extra thing my surgeon gave me. It was external…thing.
It wasn’t easy for me to look at at first. Though once I saw it it was easier. It’s not gory. It’s not bloody. It’s just a red seam.
Some people cannot cope with it at all. They shield their eyes from it, put their hands over their eyes, they would prefer me to keep it hidden from view. As if I’m exposing myself in some obscene way. On one level I understand this, since it took some courage on my part to take the scarf off the first time and really look at it myself. I’m looking at my new normal, my new reality, I’m looking at what is new and what has been lost. I don’t entirely understand why people are so ooked out by looking at someone else’s new normal, however. I’m not dripping blood, I have no gaping wound. There are no visible stitches or jagged edges. It’s very slightly swollen, but not visibly. Is it horrific that I’d rather not keep it swathed in cloth? Is this akin to standing naked in the grass while the commuter train whizzes by? Am I being a medical exhibitionist?
This kind of reaction hurts in ways the incision never hurt. It makes new words pop into my head: disfigured, disgusting, freakish. I seem to have become an untouchable in some circles. I want to ask: do you understand that this scar is permanent? Are you going to avert your eyes every time I come into the room? Or do you expect that I will be a good girl and I will make sure my disfigurement discreetly covered over for the rest of my life? Is that what’s expected of me? Is that the right way to proceed? Do I need to be polite and keep my red line covered up? Forever, or is there a point when I can stop? When it’s no longer red? After a set number of months? I don’t recall reading any etiquette notes on this.
I’m moving toward calling it my scar. Slowly, I’m learning how to claim it.
This is my scar. This picture was taken last week with my cell phone after I put vitamin e on it; it’s actually less red now. And yes, my skin was still a little disturbed by the adhesive. But there it is: there are many like it, but this one is mine.