Scars

I have a lot of physical scars. There is a 5cm long one above my lip, which is the result of an incident involving a chocolate topping bottle about 20 years ago. No, I wasn’t glassed in a late-night brawl at my local Cold Rock, but rather the victim of  my housemate’s careless placement of a glass bottle on the edge of a high shelf.  The bottle fell, smashed and a piece of glass flew up into my face. The glass was so sharp that I didn’t feel it cut; the first I knew of it was when I noticed my blood pouring all over the floor. It was stitched up by a gorgeous young doctor in the local emergency department, who took great care to make sure that my tantalisingly named vermillion border was stitched back together perfectly so that my scar would eventually become barely noticeable. I was in my early 20s when it happened, so dealing with a facial scar, no matter how minor, was sort of a big deal. One of the first ‘medical’ treatments I adhered to as an adult was the application of Vitamin E oil to that scar. Morning and night, day after day. I really didn’t want a visible scar. If only I’d known what lay ahead.

vermillion borderlip scarlip scar 2

When I pull the cat’s bum face to signify my displeasure with something, or whistle, or smoke a Cuban the scar disappears. I do at least one of those things regularly each day.

Also, I am determined to bring the term ‘oral commissures’ into everyday use. I’d appreciate your help.

I have scars on my left knee from two surgeries – one to fix a cartilage torn at the gym (no shit, that seriously happened, I went to the gym!), and one to fix some serious damage I did falling down the stairs whilst moving house the week after we got married. You’ll be pleased to know that the box of cheap, mismatched glassware I was carrying was unscathed. The surgeon who did the second knee operation was at pains to tell me that he would do his best to reuse the pre-existing scars to minimise further scarring. I’m not sure how he kept a straight face during that conversation considering my knees are so wide and gnarly they resemble a pair of Galapagos turtles retracted into their shells.

My kneecaps in their natural habitat.

My kneecaps in their natural habitat.

I have a tiny little white scar which belies the enormity of what came out of it – the scar from my boy’s caesarean birth, where somehow they managed to pull a 4.4kg baby out of a slot that’s only about 10cms long. I suppose one only need compare it to the slot that a baby born ‘naturally’ comes out to imagine how the laws of physics can be defied. When I saw the size of my newborn’s pumpkinesque head, I was quite pleased that those laws were defied by my stomach rather than my vagina.

Then of course I have the massive great scar where my right breast used to be. I have pondered long and hard about posting a photo of it. I would never in a million years have ever even contemplated posting a topless photo of myself before my mastectomy – mainly because to see the full length of the D cup boobs of a 40 something woman she’d have to be totally naked, not just topless. But I think that the whole process of cancer – mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies, mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation tattooing and radiation – has caused me to see the place where my boob used to be as almost otherly; it’s like I’m looking at an image of someone else. In my mind’s eye, my chest is complete with two breasts, so when I catch a glimpse of myself naked in the mirror, I am always shocked to see what it looks like. Almost two years on and it’s still a surprise to see that my breast isn’t there, and my skin is mottled brown from the radiation burns. The entire scar, plus the adjoining underarm where the lymph nodes were removed, are numb, which means that every night, when I faithfully apply Vitamin E so that my scar remains soft, I can’t actually feel my hand touching my own skin. Maybe that numbness is what causes the mental separation, and is perhaps what allows me to show you this:

mastectomy

Things I had hoped to show in this photo – mastectomy scar, radiation tattoos (they look like tiny blue moles), radiation burns on chest and throat, scar from portacath (on left shoulder). Things that are also in this photo: giant bingo wing.

It’s shocking, I know. It still shocks me every single time. I’ve never been particularly slim, taut or terrific, and I am now a middle-aged woman, but the sight of that scar takes my mind to places that it doesn’t want to go. Clothed, with my boob out of its box and in my bra, I look like me. That image in the mirror matches the image of me I hold in my head. Naked, with my boob back in its box, the image in the mirror doesn’t match what’s in my head, and I feel uncomfortable and jittery. I don’t hate my body, I am actually amazed and proud that it stood up to the beating that chemo and radiation handed out.  It’s just that my body doesn’t look like my mind thinks it should. I grew my boobs at age 12, so my brain had 30 years of status quo before everything changed. Maybe one day it will all click and there will be no surprise when my bra comes off at shower time. Either that or I’ll grow old (a thought that seriously excites me – imagine having the chance to grow old!!), dementia will kick in and I’ll forget that I ever had two boobs.

The physical scars heal with time; the scabs fall off, the itching stops and the pain subsides. But the emotional scars are still livid, they weep and itch and pain. The only salve is a mixture of time and love, and I am thankful every single fucking day that I have both. This blog is also something that soothes my wounds, especially the comments from you guys, my readers, whose words show me that I am not alone in this. Sometimes when I’m writing particularly hard stuff, I imagine you sitting at your computer, reading along and nodding or crying or sighing or laughing. That sense of sharing is going to help me heal, and I hope it will help you too, no matter what scars you bear.

34 comments

  1. Thanks Julie. I have the same disconnect between the image of myself in my head and what I find each night reflected back in the mirror before my shower. And I too have wondered if my head will ever ‘catchup’ …… that it will finally remember (and accept??) there’s only one breast still there ……. and how long that will take.

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    1. It’s interesting, my brain seems not even able to remember that the boob is gone, so acceptance is probably a long way off. It is quite bizarre to look at your body without recognition.

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    1. Thanks Jo. I know you are facing more surgery and more scars, and all of the associated shit and disaster that goes along with it. I am so bloody fortunate to be at the point of being able to reflect on this, when I was in the middle of it I could never have imagined being at this point.

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  2. I’ve just spent the weekend at a conference about breastfeeding with over 1000 volunteers, so boobs featured highly. Our love/hate relationship with them, their competing roles lust/nurture, mourning if they don’t function as we hoped or the incredible loss we feel should they have to be removed. I feel privileged that I get to share your story. You are a very resilient woman.

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  3. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I am so glad I clicked on that FB link from Mrs Woog and had the opportunity to read this. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like so can only imagine through your writing, but you certainly made me tear up, sigh, contemplate, and all with a chuckle or two! Big love to you and I look forward to reading more.

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    1. Hi Catherine, I’m so chuffed that Mrs Woog shared my post and that you came in to have a look. I am finding the writing therapeutic as I work my way through returning to normal life – or something resembling normal life! Cheers, Julie

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  4. Hi
    My nan had a mastectomy before I was born and back in the day it required cutting from inside the arm near the elbow all the way to the stomach… Over 100 stitches she had. I grew up spending half my childhood with her and never really noticed her missing breast. She was who she was and the scar was part of my nan. She had all sorts of false boobs, swimming boobs, going out boobs etc. I just thought that some women had one boobs and others two for a very long time! As I grew older and realised the enormousity of her scar it made me so proud of who she was. Back in her day it wasn’t discussed, was hidden behind closed doors and some people even thought you could catch it! There was no counselling, no support groups and very little education. Breast removal was radical! It never held her back from anything. She was open, honest and never hid it from me… It has meant I have had myself checked and appreciate the strength of other women around me. She has since passed of old age and I miss her dearly… She had one message she told me all the time… The universe only gives things to those that can handle it, the rest have it easy!

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    1. Hi Donna, thanks so much for reading and for your comments. I am the same with my son as your nan was with you – I have never hidden the scar from him and I believe that’s been a large part of the reason why he’s accepted it so well. It’s just normal to him now. I also have boobs for different occasions – regular boob, swimming boob and soft boob. They are amazingly realistic these days, and with a top on no-one would have a clue that it’s not a real boob! Julie

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  5. Totally impressed that you went to the gym Jules- although I could’ve warned you against it – nothing good ever comes from going to the gym!

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    1. I actually went more than once! I was obsessed for a while there, but then the whole busted knee thing undid all my good work and I returned to situation normal – lazy!

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  6. I’m glad I found your blog. Last month was the 16th anniversary of my mum’s passing thanks to Breast Cancer. She had a lot of scars too. Memories of her mastectomy scars are some of the most vivid I have left of her. I was only 19 when she died and now as a mum myself and being very mindful (and vigilant) of BC, I have a whole new perspective of her and the things I didn’t know. Did she feel the same disconnect when she looked in the mirror? Questions with answers I guess I’ll never know. But then once in a while I’ll find a blog (like yours) or an article somewhere out there on the interwebs about someone’s cancer journey, or about parenthood or kids in general and I am given the chance to think about her and how she must have felt, what she thought and how she coped… And despite the fact that I won’t ever know the answers, I feel as though I am able to explore a side of her I had no comprehension of when I was younger. So thank you for sharing – I’m glad I found your blog.

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    1. Hi, and welcome. I am so sorry about your mum, 16 years ago treatments were so different and I likely would not have survived, as my cancer was very advanced. I am glad you’re vigilant about BC, but sad that you have a reason to be. But here I sit, in remission, fighting fit and working my way through the maze of life in the after. My son is now 6, I think he was too young to really comprehend what was happening to me when I was diagnosed (he was 4), and I will be forever grateful that he didn’t understand the full magnitude of what was going on. Much love to you, and I hope you keep relating to the things I write about. Julie

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      1. Thanks Julie! I marvel at the changes to treatment’s these days. All the more reasons to keep supporting cancer research! Maybe one day there will be a cure 🙂 I will continue to follow your blog – I’m sure there will be a lot of things that will resonate! xx

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  7. I had thyroid surgery twice and was totally grossed out by my scars. I couldn’t look at them, let alone touch them, for months. Time was a great healer though, and I now when I look at my scars, I don’t see what I’ve lost (my thyroid) but what I’ve gained (life.) Who needs a cancerous thyroid anyway? Those scars are my battle scars, where I battled cancer and won (at least for now, anyway.) I’m pretty proud of those scars now. Writing during my diagnosis, treatment and beyond was enormously therapeutic for me, and I hope it is for you too. Love your work xx

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  8. (hugs) MY BMX scars don’t worry me, they remind me to be grateful I am here – battle scars for the warrior , I have the same numbness on my chest (still have my porta cath) and down my leg now. The tattoos on my leg & hip I plan to do something with – not sure yet. I hardly even think about losing my breasts. Cancer that is another story.
    hhaa I have a slot scar too and I have no idea how they pulled out two butt first.

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  9. Hi 🙂 I’m having a mastectomy sometime in the next 30 days, I feel nauseous thinking about it, I cannot fathom looking in the mirror afterwards.
    I don’t know how to do this.

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    1. Hi Leanne,
      Oh god, I’m so sorry you’re faced with this. I only had 2 days between diagnosis and surgery, which was a blessing in disguise because I had no time to think about it. I guess my best advice is just to take things one day at a time. If you look too far ahead it all seems overwhelming. I am happy to chat anytime – my email address is on my contact page.

      Take care,
      Julie

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