At the time of chemotherapy, all the scars in the world couldn’t have dampened my mood. I saw them as individual badges that proved the glory of my hardship, as if the clay of my body had been remolded to collaborate with the fury of the storm. And I was fundamentally OK with the storm that caused the scars despite that my mother hates when I say I’m happy I went through chemotherapy.
It’s not that I’m happy I got cancer — I’m happy I had the chance to learn what I did about life and death and still survive. Cancer scars were the conditional terms to that arrangement.
But as all decisions of vanity seem to mature, those scars weren’t so appealing once I was out of the peaceful solitude of my cancer suite and back among peers. I was only 17, and for a heart so young to be rushed with the emotional gratification of not only understanding how precious life is but to be given a second chance, well, of course I was overwhelmed with joy, among other things.
That kind of joy, as it turns out, did not translate into the tongues of youth. I couldn’t describe the feeling of bliss, and I couldn’t hold conversations with people my age because we saw the world so differently. I struggled to explain the scars — the hole in my arm where the semi-permanent tube went up into my chest or the stretch marks on my waist from the steroids in my chemo. My friends and classmates didn’t mean to look at my body with fear, but it showed on their faces as they’d look at my scars skeptically with unsure eyes. They just didn’t understand.
The biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my entire life, including at this moment at 17, was to look at myself through the eyes of others. Rather than seeing my scars like I had in the hospital, as marks of a modern miracle made in my very own body, I saw them as strange, as different, as scary. I wasn’t scared of the scars — I was scared of other people seeing the scars. I’d have saved myself so much suffering by the hands of self-judgment had I just been more committed to my own vision and my own interpretation of my life and my body.
I didn’t want to be special for cancer anymore. I just wanted to live as free of sickness as everyone else my age. I wanted to look like them, be like them, be lovable and wanted like them. But I’d lose that battle. I’d never be like them because I wasn’t them. I was me.
The same would go later for things like my career, my relationships, my home and even my opinions. All the things I was excited for in the hospital were much harder to accomplish once I was out in the real world solely because I took into account the opinions of others — or at least what I thought other people might think. Growing up and out of that mindset was like climbing out of a tornado, where the obstacles were only twisted air threatening to suck you downward unless you remembered that clouds may look daunting, but they are only air and fluff.
Just as with the treatment, learning to cope with the scars was a spiritual lesson that, in the end, I couldn’t do without. I blossomed through my 20s in a sort of rough-and-tumble way. I learned to stop worrying what potential lovers might think of the scars and started demanding that they not pity me, not be afraid of my health or my body, and not treat me as fragile. They had to treat the scars and my own personal history like I did: as the story and marks of a victory, not a victim.
I learned to do the same with the rest of my life, to translate it into a language that maybe only I can understand but that’s enough. I’m enough. The scars look again as beautiful as the curves of sand beaten by waves, as incredible as the way lightning strikes rock and leaves a dashing, miraculous indent. I wouldn’t have it any other way now. After all, I am lightening. My life, even as hard as I had to fight to make it last, will still be brief. It will be full of light and magic and something all its own, and you can be damn sure it will leave a mark.
I eventually wrote on my own website an article about scars, knowing that many of my readers were also survivors and were likely battling the same aspects of cancer that don’t go away after chemo. I summed it up as simple as I could:
A body without scars is like a passport without stamps.
Our bodies, our lives, our selves are but vessels to carry us around this incredible world to gather our treasures, to learn and see and bask in the glory of all that reminds us of the wonder and joy of living. The worst we could do is not allow harm or unsightly marks to come upon the ship that is our body. The worst thing would be to never use that body for its intent: living. I’d rather have a body with marks of honor, curiosity and experience than a perfect ship that stayed safe in its harbor without a single story of a storm to tell.