Breast cancer lesson number 21: Scars are tattoos with better stories

I am proud of all of the scars life has chosen to give me (maybe not the one from burning my arm on the cooker while trying to make victoria sponge – that just hurt).

Scars tell stories. Scars signal strength. Scars remind us that life is hard, but that every time we hit a difficulty, we have the power to recover and that the memories do fade. Every scar I have makes me who I am – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Image

When I came out of my hip surgery with a drain mark, a seven-inch scar and 44 holes, I thought I was pretty hard. Looking down at each mark today, I think of the moment I learned to walk again (in my parents’ kitchen), the moment I took my first post-op cycle ride and the moment I stepped back into high heels (still look a bit tipsy in anything over a centimetre so this is still a rare occurrence). Little did I know that just over six years later, there would be a few more impressive scars fighting for the top spot as a marker of life’s challenges.

With my wound care appointment and my first trip back to hospital since surgery fast approaching, I thought I’d take a moment to assess the scars that are now covering my body (don’t worry, there won’t be any photographic evidence).

1)    The tummy tuck: appropriately I think, the big tummy tuck scar is a 38cm whopper in the shape of a smile. It is glued together (open for the eyes to enjoy) and is covered in a thin sticky mesh tape, which keeps it protected and attracts every bit of fluff possible. When I look at it I smile at how flat my tummy is and how many people contributed to the chocolate fund to enable me to have the surgery. I am very lucky. I believe it will look angry for 12 to 18 months and will then be neatly tucked away under my bikini line. Nice!

2)    The drain holes: two in the abdomen and two down the right side (with a few pinholes where the stitches were). Blink and you’ll miss them! When I do locate them I think, they were painless tubes attached to sports bottles and they did a good job. Thanks drains!

3)    The belly button: Now moved to its new position (quite what they did I will never know – cut it out and dig a hole to reposition it?) it is surrounded in stitches that look like threads of cotton. I think I get a trim tomorrow when I go in! When I look at it, I laugh at the fact they went to such lengths to keep it in a normal position. They think of everything.

4)    The boob: imagine a milky mound with a saucepan-shaped scar on it. Basically, the boob skin is still the same, except for a circle where they took off the nipple (the nipple area is now a flap of skin from my missing tummy – complete with light tummy hairs). There is a line extending out from the circular scar, moving towards to the right armpit. This incision helped them reach and extract all my lymph nodes, saving me from a further scar under my arm. Currently covered in little steri-strips, I am still waiting for the big big reveal. When I think of my mound, I don’t think of what I had, I think of what I have: my life. I am grateful to those surgeons who are both trained to take the cancer away and create something that means I won’t be afraid to look in the mirror for the rest of my life. Take that cancer!

In short, it’s less Frankenstein’s monster and more a new improved me.

I read a beautiful quote earlier: ‘Scars remind you where you’ve been. But they don’t have to dictate where you’re going.’ I’d like to amend it slightly: ‘Scars remind you where you’ve been and how hard you worked to get there. They don’t have to dictate where you’re going, but they can give you the strength and determination to make sure the path you do choose is a beautiful, interesting and inspiring one.’

So make today a day to be proud of all your scars. And, if you don’t have any, start living! 

Breast cancer lesson number fourteen: Prepare yourself for the big reveal… It hurts

Today marks the start of my return to independence. I have already wiggled my slippers on, waddled slowly to the toilet without a supportive arm and managed to wash my face. My moving mattress is now just foam, so there won’t be any more late night parties. I have also conquered the stairs without my wound feeling like it’s ripping apart. That means I am pretty much ready to go home.

Today has been an unexpectedly big day. Not because I can now pull my big knickers on. Not because I am getting my third drain taken out (leaving me with just one to take home with me tomorrow). No, today was the day I saw myself in the mirror for the first time. And, the worst bit is, I wasn’t prepared.

Looking down certainly doesn’t prepare you for looking in the mirror. I had accepted the challenge of washing myself independently and, before I knew it, I was sitting facing the scars and trying to make friends with my new flap. I had believed the nurses and doctors when they said it looked amazing (and it does in medical terms). It’s just that a scar from hip to hip, a new belly button, a large swollen lump in place of a cancerous boob (with no nipple) and a very swollen arm from the lymph node removal is quite a lot to take in. I may be healthier right now and I should be rejoicing about that, but I just feel a bit like an alien. Until I love these new body parts, how can I expect any one else to love me?

There is a small blessing in all of this. I have never been a woman defined by my looks. I’ve had spots, I’ve been overweight many times, my style is what could only be described as timeless (because it pretty much never changes, not because it’s stylish) and my walk is unique to say the least. I grew up being teased for the way I look and walk and I am strong enough now to know that it’s not a bit of body tissue that makes you who you are. It’s the person you are beyond the scars that matters.

A lovely nurse said something beautiful to me yesterday. She said: ‘disease makes us beautiful’. By this, she didn’t mean there are a queue of people dying to get stitches and surgical bruising. What she meant was, every obstacle we face reminds us of the important things in life and gives us the space to work out who we really are and what we really want. Each scar is a reminder that life is hard, but every time you recover, you learn to see more beauty in both yourself and others. We can be beautiful in other people’s eyes because we can see the pain others can’t and we can be the shoulder or support when others’ backs are turned. Put it this way, if beauty were defined by the amount of hurdles we face in life, I’d be Kate Moss.

While I will never be beautiful, I hope that my scars (once I have learned to love them), will give me the strength to support others and help them find the beauty within.

So tomorrow is the beginning of the real post-surgery recovery at home. There is only one thing I will miss from this first stage other than the beautifully smooth mashed potato – and that’s the view. London, with its bright lights, busy streets and Big Ben alarm clock – is pretty good company when you can’t sleep (and I’ve had what feels like about three hours in total in hospital). Walking by the river on operation day felt like a different kind of London. Away for the usual crowds and commuters, it was preparing for the day, with workers sweeping up, switching on and keeping the city’s heart beating. Looking out over the water at night, it feels like another world driven by bus timetables and lone wanderers, not blood pressure machines and drain bottles. It may be the city that never sleeps, but in the early hours even the centre can feel like the quietest place on earth.

There’s only one thing I have to do now before they let me go tomorrow – and that’s have a poo. Easier said than done…