Year of a Hundred Things – “Thing” #81 – “Surviving”

“Here’s your t-shirt,” my friend said, as she handed me the bright pink “Relay for Life” shirt, sporting the word “Survivor” on the back.

“You gave me the wrong shirt,” I said, my face contorted with confusion.

“No, I didn’t. You had cancer, right?” She stood facing me, now, holding the shirt in her outstretched hand.

“Yes, but it was only a basal cell. It wasn’t life threatening.”

“They’re all life threatening. You had cancer. Just because it wasn’t terminal doesn’t mean it hasn’t affected you.”

And there it was. The word that changed the way I looked at my experience: “affected.” She was right, it had. Every year, I go see my dermatologist, who examines me from head to toe to ensure that there is no recurrence. I had a very unusual, very aggressive basal cell. It wasn’t the type many develop from sun damage. It resulted from some kind of viral or bacterial infiltration. My cat had nicked my face while he and I were playing with a ball and because he didn’t break the skin, I didn’t rush to clean the site. He reached for it and I got too close. But according to the pathologist, it could have been caused by anything that broke the delicate skin under my eye.

The t-shirt experience resonated with me because I didn’t suffer the way I’d seen friends and family suffer: the way I’m watching many suffer, right now. Yes, I’d had three hours of surgery to excise three inches of unseen, underlying infiltration in my right cheek. Yes, I’d nearly lost my right eye. But I hadn’t had to have chemo or radiation. I walked away with clear margins and no subsequent treatment. Imagine my confusion at the word “survivor.” But I’m lucky because that IS what I am. I have the scar to prove it.

My friend Mary recently experienced a much more compelling confusion as she sat in her oncologist’s office for her post-surgical exam. And as I read her account here, I was reminded that I too am changed and I felt myself psychologically pushing her up the survival ladder. Don’t be mistaken; I am not recounting my story because I want to move the spotlight. No. It’s because experiencing cancer in any form takes you through a range of emotions that are unexpected, even if that cancer isn’t the kind that kills you. As she sat amid others whose cancer was much more proliferative and possibly terminal, my friend felt the guilt that comes with early detection and quick treatment. It’s a good guilt, which makes it all the more strange.

I have, in the last month, watched friends suffer disfiguring surgeries, chemo, radiation, shock, unbearable nausea, hospitalization from dehydration, weight loss, hair loss and more. Thankfully, all of those friends are surviving, too. As I watch them, I applaud their grace. They are mothers, fathers, grandmothers, homemakers, entrepreneurs, business owners and to a one, they are strong. They don’t feel it all of the time, but it’s there. I look at them through the eyes of one who scratched the surface of cancer and think about how much more they are surviving and that twinge of guilt makes me pray harder that they’ll get the chance to feel every bit of survivor’s guilt, too.

Year of Hundred Things: “Thing” #97 – Scars

“That’s not a scar. I want to see you in my office tomorrow morning at 9am.” She said, looking closely at the small lesion under my right eye. We were at a baby shower: certainly not a place I expected to experience such an admonition. Three weeks later, the pathology report listed a skin cancer not common in Mediterranean skin types. It was an aggressive basal cell that had begun as a cat scratch and had been growing unabated for seven years. It could have been anything that broke the delicate skin under my eye. It was coincidence that it was my pet cat, having nicked me while reaching for a ball we’d been batting around together. Two months later, I spent three hours in surgery as they cut and cut and cut until three inches had been excised from my right cheek. When they were done, I had a 6 inch, L-shaped scar that extended from the outer corner of my eye, across, and then down the length of my nose. Securing it were hundreds of black sutures. I only knew all of that because my mother described it me, cautiously. I didn’t look in a mirror for weeks. I knew that eventually I’d have to, but at the time, I couldn’t imagine that I wasn’t going to be terribly disfigured. I could think of nothing else but how no one would ever look at me the same way. The scar, as you see in the image attached, is almost imperceptible. All of the anxiety I felt at the time has been lost in the joy and discovery I’ve experienced since. Even after seventeen years, most people aren’t aware of the scar until I mention it. I had an exceptional facial surgeon[1] who performed the Mohs procedure planning for the contours of my face.

So, why do I even mention it?

Because the real scar isn’t the one on my face. I was lucky, in a number of ways. The cancer could have infiltrated my eye, and then my brain. It could have taken my life simply because I wasn’t paying attention to the obvious changes on my face. No, the real scars are far more disturbing than the one that is visible to others.

However, I have made it a point to transcend my scars. I won’t let them live me. I’m sure it sounds incredibly cliche, but the fact is, life is far too short to obsess over whether my right cheek matches my left. There is NOTHING I can do about it. So I have elected to live well and forgive those that caused the scars. I am keenly aware of each one and its impact on me.

I think that in order to keep a handle on those things that could drive us insane, we have to make the effort to own them. By accepting those rocks that are thrown in our paths, we control how they make us feel. We are the sum of our experiences, both bad and good. A whole person can easily be riddled with cracks, and still keep the precious hold we have on our self-worth.