While it is always hard to say goodbye to summer, many cancer survivors will welcome the end of summertime beachwear. Bikinis and board shorts lay bare the surgical scars we keep covered the rest of the year.
“When I go to the beach, I look like Frankenstein,” Dave Callahan told me. Dave had testicular cancer, and his first surgery required an incision from his pelvis to his sternum. A year later, a tumor appeared in his lungs, and he had to have his sternum cut open and spread apart. He now has about 24 inches of scar tissue lining his torso.
“I am self conscious about it because it reminds other people I had cancer. Even my parents. We could be having a normal family weekend, then we go to the beach and I take off my shirt, and it makes them think about me being sick. I went to a bachelor party at the beach. I didn’t want people to think: ‘Poor Dan, he had cancer.’ I just wanted to be one of the guys hanging out. I was able to drink enough beer to get past it.”
Surgery is a central part of cancer treatment. Whether it’s a small opening for a chemo port or the equivalent of an open-heart procedure, most of us have been under the knife. And now we have bumpy, knotty scar tissue to remind us of our battlefield experience for the rest of our days.
“I am marked for life,” one young survivor of ovarian cancer told me. “I have 12 inches of train track up my stomach. I see it every day, and it reminds me what I went through. Not that I would be a bikini woman, but there are definitely things I can’t wear anymore.”
I have three scars from my lumpectomy and node dissection. One of them is visible in the season of bathing suits and spaghetti straps. In the aftermath of treatment, I worked hard to hide the scar because I didn’t want to invite questions. I didn’t mind talking about my cancer experience, but I wanted to do it on my terms.
Scars take away that option. They betray information we may prefer to keep private.
One guy I spoke to got diagnosed with colon cancer a few years after college. Because several members of his family died of the disease, he decided to have his entire colon removed. Now he has a scar running from his rib cage to his pelvis, and he hates the curiosity it attracts.
“I go to the gym all the time, but I still don’t like taking my shirt off in front of other people, which you know, stinks. It’s not that I mind what it looks like. I just don’t want people knowing something personal of mine. I want to have the choice to tell people or not. I don’t want them to be able to find out on their own.”
Even if our scars stay with us forever, our feelings about them can change. These days I don’t mind if people ask me about my incisions, because I feel less vulnerable about my prognosis. I can talk about my cancer diagnosis without being swamped by fear now.
Several survivors I spoke to said that their scars transitioned from being a painful reminder of treatment into a badge of courage.
“I love my scars,” Haley Coakley told me. Haley got diagnosed with cervical cancer when she was pregnant with her second child. “At first I was like, ‘Do I have to have these scars?’ Now it they are like my war tattoosmy very expensive war tattoos. They show I made it through, and I am still going strong. They are my accomplishments.”
Ironically, sometimes it can take another person’s gaze to help us see our scars as a thing of honor. Denny Tu, who went through treatment for nasal cancer in his late twenties, has scars on his neck, arm, and abdomen. At first he felt uncomfortable about them, but then he hooked up with a guy who made him view his scars differently. “This guy wasn’t judging the scars. He was admiring them. We lose our sense of how heroic we are. Yeah, I survived the worst thing ever.”
No matter how much vitamin E ointment we use, these battlefield medals will be with us for the rest of our lives. Whether we keep them covered up or reveal them for all to see, we have won the right to wear them proudly.
Emily Cousins is a writer and editor who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 32 and nine-months pregnant with her first child. She is currently writing a book about what it's like for young survivors once cancer treatment is over-when the radiation burns have healed and the hair has started to come back, but everything else is completely out of whack. After almost a decade living in New York City, Cousins now resides in Northern Arizona with her husband, son, and the daughter she was lucky to have post chemo.