Scars. They reflect the roadmap of our lives. No matter if they are beautiful or ugly….they’re ours. Meaningful and sometimes tragic reminders of the battles fought, lives produced and everything in between. I have nearly 30 individual scars on my one body – sixteen of them acquired only at 2 weeks of age when, as an infant, I fought a raging staph infection that nearly took my life before it even began.
Sixteen reminders of my survival. Not pretty, just real. Real in every sense…my body was attacked, my body fought back, and now I have the proof, spread across my backside. Not in any particularly organized pattern, just scattered scars where small tubes were inserted to let the infection ooze out of the infected flesh.
At two weeks of age, and living in the former communist country of Moldova, under Soviet rule at the time, medicine was socialized. What that meant is that unless your job was to produce something…a newspaper, a street sign, a widget of sorts, you did not get paid well in your profession. Doctors were criminally underpaid and under-valued and therefore often underperformed, as a result. Bribes for better treatment were the norm, so patients often came to hospitals armed with an added incentive for the doctor that was to treat them…cash or bottles of booze were commonly presented to doctors at medical appointments.
According to my parents, the story goes something like this. When I was a few weeks old, I had a little sore on my lower back. When the visiting nurse came to our home, she punctured the small blister and gave me an even bigger infection that caused my fever to skyrocket. An ambulance was called and I was rushed to the hospital where they discovered an aggressive staph infection ravaging its way through my body.
During the two weeks I spent in the hospital, my condition. After the bribes stopped working and doctor visits to my hospital room slowed down, my parents were told that they should go home. That they should leave me in the hospital…that I was not going to make it through the next night. That’s when my father flipped a switch, stormed a medical conference taking place in my hospital, and dragged out 3 doctors who would end up saving my life. To my good fortune, my father was strong-willed, but so much so that my official medical record had this note in it, “Be careful! The father has a bad temper.” So I survived, and eventually my mother and father brought me (and my sixteen little scars) home and then a few years later to a new beginning in America.
Throughout my life, those scars were always with me. Something I had to explain to friends at cheerleading camps when changing into our uniforms…Something I had to clarify when asked why I preferred high-waisted bikinis rather than the skimpy ones everyone was wearing in the ‘90s. Something I had to acknowledge in my intimate relationships as well. But they were a part of me…I did not know life without them.
When I was in my early thirties, I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, and genetic testing showed that I carried a mutation that would, more than likely, cause my cancer to return in my lifetime. Stage III, triple negative breast cancer with the BRCA 1 mutation. I hit the jackpot – the most aggressive breast cancer was playing house in my body. Hard situations sometimes require even harder measures. So we went ballistic…our counterattack included dose-dense chemotherapy and full-course radiation as well as a double radical mastectomy. Taking the most aggressive measures available was hopefully going to also increase the chances of long-term survival. It was touch-and-go in those dark days and big decisions needed to be made quickly. We weren’t trying to save my breasts…we were trying to save my life.
At that time, the nipple-sparing procedure was not an option for me, so off everything went. I closed my eyes and surrendered to some of the most capable hands in New York City. Because of the location of my cancer, the surgeons had to scrape down to my chest wall in order to make sure they got rid of every microcell and cancerous fiber. They needed to clean house! And they did just that, leaving a warzone of annihilation and destruction across my chest.
The scars were severe and, while expected, were still difficult to adjust to. It was gruesome. The surgery and the scars hurt more mentally and emotionally than physically. And not because of vanity. But because they were reminders that, if it were not for modern medicine, I would not be alive…that in order to live, I had to virtually amputate a part of my body. Reminders that I was somehow damaged, less than, unwhole, weak.
As opposed to the scars left on my back from my infant staph infection, these new scars were on my chest. Everytime I looked in the mirror I was reminded of my dance with death and how I was forced to deal with my mortality. I could not run away. I could not even turn away. Every shower, every changing of clothes, there they were…in my face, wickedly staring at me – permanent reminders of my own personal defectiveness. And worse, I could not unsee the horrific expressions on the faces of my family and my dearest friends…stepping forward to change my bandages and empty my drains, meeting my scars for the first time. It was as if they were seeing a nightmare unfold in real time. They couldn’t hide their shock, and seeing the pain on their faces was worse than the physical pain I was feeling.
The anguish of loss was present and I was reliving my cancer each day. Every day. How can you put something behind you when it’s staring you in the face? The anatomy of my scars became more than physical tissue being rebuilt…it was the revolving thoughts racing through my mind and in my heart and in my core.
They say time heals all wounds. But the scars…those remain. Two years after my cancer and after countless reconstructive surgeries, the scars were still there…red and angry. My emotional state was resignation and concession. I was resigned to living with the collateral damage the cancer treatment left. Weakened nails, brittle teeth, lymphedema in my arms, those treacherous scars on my chest and the visceral scars on my psyche. But the one thing that I could not bear was the infertility caused by the chemotherapy. That left me reeling.
And then a miracle happened.
After a spiritual trip abroad with my husband, I realized that I was pregnant. Spontaneously pregnant, against all medical odds and probabilities. And not only that, I was pregnant with twins, if you can imagine. For the first and only time in my life, I was pregnant, and let me tell you, it was the most wondrous experience. I finally felt that I was doing something important, something bigger than me and much bigger than my cancer and that initiated my emotional healing process.
After nearly dying from cancer, to have the ability to grow new life was just miraculous, in every sense of the word. My mental scars began to take the back seat and fade against the possibility of bringing life into the world. Something I was told would never happen. My physical scars were suddenly no match for my growing belly. Now when I looked in the mirror, I was in awe of my own body…what it went through and what it was able to do in spite of the destruction it had endured.
And when the doctors told me that I would need a c-section and I thought about adding yet another scar, I was proud to do just that. Because I slowly began to realize that every scar and imperfection was fought for and earnestly EARNED. And that my scars were my badges of survival…reminders of the moments and experiences of achievement…something to honor and take pride in.
The Japanese art of Kintsugi, where objects are shattered but then reassembled, the cracks painted in gold, teaches that broken things are not something to hide but instead to display with pride and dignity. The scars, my scars, your scars, they all tell an intricate, authentic story of the beauty, grit, and strength in the broken places. And we all have broken places, visible or not. In spite of everything, you are not only whole, you are bold and gold in the cracks that once were. They are yours….you earned them, just like I did.
My favorite scar is my c-section scar because it lives as a precious souvenir of the two remarkable lives I created. It’s also one of my smallest scars, and I actually sometimes secretly wish that it was bigger because of the enormous story that it tells. My story. And now, I would love to hear yours!
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