The Girl With the Red Hair and a Tear – a guest post

[When I produced The SCAR Project Cincinnati exhibition, so many people came up to me in tears, telling me how much the SCAR portrait of “the girl with the red hair and a tear” moved them. Getting to know Sarah and many of the SCAR girls (as many of them call themselves) this past year as I’ve begun coordinating exhibitions and consulting with those trying to bring The SCAR Project to their cities/countries, has been one of the most beautiful things in my life. It is my great honor and pleasure to introduce you to “the girl with the red hair and a tear.” Obviously her portrait wrote the book on the whole picture being worth a 1000 words. But here are a few of the words behind her SCAR portrait. Her own words: my friend, survivor sister, SCAR girl, and guest blogger, Sarah.]

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“It looked . . . ” my surgeon twisted her face and looked towards the ceiling, searching for words to describe it. “Well . . . it looked like a flower.”

I don’t know if that made the news more, or less, disturbing.

The growth, blossoming in the ducts of my right breast, could be compared to something beautiful.

I don’t know why this was first question that fell out of my mouth when my doctor told me I had cancer but – before my brain could wrap itself around that word – I needed to know what this thing looked like. What was I battling? Getting a vision of something usually provides some context. Instead, I only got an image of clubbing some innocent peonies. This really wasn’t going to be much good, in terms of gearing up for a fight.

This was the beginning of nine months where cancer consumed my life. I know that I am lucky that it didn’t take more. Though I was diagnosed DCIS (ductile carcinoma in situ) and staged at zero, the cancer was all over the place like weeds in an untended garden plot.

Not one doctor could tell me what causes breast cancer in a fit, otherwise healthy 28-year-old, or what causes it to be so aggressive in younger women – in my case filling up the ducts and heading for my chest wall. After three excisions, and an argument between my radiologist and her MRI technicians, they continued to find more cancer, through three quadrants of my right breast.

Each new discovery gave me less time to make decisions, but I knew a mastectomy made the most sense.

All of my doctors were women and each one felt like some strange mother figure that was going to take action to make everything better. My reflex to this maternal agitation was to beg for more time. I also wanted to see more than one plastic surgeon about handling my reconstruction to figure out what my options were.

The first doctor I saw entered my exam room with a small cadre of un-introduced interns. I had a list of questions, all related to different reconstruction methods. He gathered some of my fleshy stomach between his fingers, examined my exposed breasts, and simply stated that there wasn’t enough there to reconstruct even one breast to it’s current size. But maybe with the addition of an implant?

The waiting room of another doctor contained a bowl of chocolates bearing the office logo. I snuck a few into my pocket before my partner and I were ushered into an exam room that looked more like an upscale hotel room. We were met shortly by a youngish looking doctor. Slick, attractive, but warm and kind. He didn’t take my insurance. We weighed options and ate chocolates as we rode the elevator back down to the ground floor.

The reconstruction surgeon I chose came recommended by a friend. She only did medically necessary breast surgery and she also worked on hands. She had a southern drawl. She spoke to me, not at me. She included my partner in the discussion since I had seen fit to bring her there. I told her that I didn’t necessarily need to have the whole breast removed, but I was afraid not to. When I eventually decided to remove my healthy breast as well, she said that she would do the same thing. I knew I was in the right hands.

Frightened, for my health, longevity, and lack of symmetry, my left breast was removed prophylactically less than six months after the cancerous right one. To get rid of the cancer, even between the discovery of DCIS in locations that weren’t originally identified, and a scare that resulted in a PET scan and a bone scan, it only took nine months. The reconstruction took far longer to be finalized, well over a year, and this is without the addition of the best approximation of nipples that money can buy.

I did it because wanted to look like myself. I wanted to fit into my clothes. I wanted cleavage. Why not? I had it before. I’ve had breasts since I was twelve years old, and it was my body, damn it. It had taken me 28 years to get comfortable in this skin. And now? Now I was angry that the most rational decision I could make led me to want as little change as possible.

Later, after the cancer was gone, after I looked normal in clothing, I went into a six-month funk. I would never truly look normal. Changing at the gym sent me into a cold sweat. Buying bras was a nightmare. Forget about looking sexy when I had lost all feeling at the surgery site.

I know those are superficial concerns, but still they are very real. I don’t have children yet. Can I have them? And without the cancer returning despite my best efforts? And surely if I was so blessed to give birth the first person to tell me “breast was best” would be met with a fist to the jaw, I’m certain, before I even realized what was happening. And my partner, should she choose it, would be stuck with this body, these alien protrusions from my chest for the rest of her life. It was not life or death, but it was a kind of suffering that made me, and on a bad day still makes me, burst into tears on a whim.

The SCAR Project shows this less than pretty pink-ribboned side of breast cancer. It reveals the new reality young women face, having confronted breast cancer. They look at you from their portraits as is . . . reconstructed or not . . . alive, giving the big “fuck you” to cancer, but scarred. Some have even used the word “butchered” to describe me and the other women in the photos.

The SCAR Project photos give voice to the suffering that is done in silence. Every cancer patient is applauded for staying positive, but sometimes that is too big a burden to bear. There is a real-ness in these photos, as the camera captures milliseconds of a long, multi-round fight. There is room to breathe, to expand the excised chest – because for a few moments it is only you, and that camera, and the memory of where you’ve been and what lies ahead.

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About joulesevans

Occasionally radioactive with a chance of superpowers. I use them to fight cancer. Also I write. My first book Shaken Not Stirred...a Chemo Cocktail is available on Amazon and Kindle. I'm currently working on a sequel to Shaken, a figuring out life after cancer/travel memoir about a bucket list road trip I took of Route 66.

12 responses to “The Girl With the Red Hair and a Tear – a guest post”

  1. Sara Boghdan says :

    Sara, thank you so much for writing part of your story for us. You’ve touched my heart.

    • Sara Smith says :

      MY MOTHER HAS JUST HAD HER RIGHT BREAST REMOVED AND IS NOW STARTING HER FIRST INJECTIONS FROM HER PLASTIC SURGEON…..I’M A DAUGHTER WITH A MOM THAT HAD CANCER AND IM STILL SCARED 2 DEATH. NOT JUST 4 HER BUT 4 ME N MY OLDER SISTER….SEEING MY MOTHER IN PAIN HURTS JUST AS BAD AS SEEING MY CHILDREN N PAIN..EVERY1 SAYS “O U NEED 2 GET CHECKED…N I HAVE 2 LAUGH AT THAT…I HAVE NO INSURANCE…I CANT GET STATE HELP…WHAT DO U DO????…..I THANK YOU 4 UR STORY IT GIVES ME HOPE….N THATS SUMEN IVE 4GOTTEN BOUT….HOPE….SIMPLE 4 LETTER WORD …BUT SO MUCH MEANING….THANK YOU

  2. Terri Donaldson says :

    Sarah, I also want to thank you for sharing your story. I am also a red haired girl and shed a tear when I was told I had breast cancer. The difference between us is our age. You see I was 46 when I was told that cancer took over my breast. I also chose to have a double mastectomy with reconstruction. I am a very happy (older) girl today and six years cancer free. I enjoy every day that has been give to me. They can take our breasts, but they cannot take our love of life and the joy we have of spending time with our loved ones. Your picture is beautiful, and you are a very beautiful girl. I am so happy that you are a fellow survivor!!!!!!!!

  3. CJ says :

    You are still beautiful! Now to make you laugh a bit, our scars are similar and I joke all the time that my nipples are on the shelves at Georgetown Univ, so I guess when I get insurance I can go and pull them off the shelves and stick them back on! lol! Stay encouraged and stay as beautiful as you are!

  4. Alison Kenyon says :

    You AND your breasts look beautiful. Different, yes… change is scary and hard… but definitely beautiful. I doubt your partner feels she’s missing out!

  5. andrea says :

    thanks for sharing. I saw your photo in Cincy, my brother came in from NY to see it with me, he was especially moved by your photo. Love your “breast is best” comment! I am a young survivor who has had 2 babies after breast cancer and after my bilateral mastectomies. I swore the same thing too….fist to jaw!!

  6. Heather says :

    ‘Heart’fully written. I was crying and laughing at the same time. I pray for your continued recovery, fight on Warrior Princess. Thank-you for putting in writing what so many of us feel.

    • Rann Patterson (@RannPatterson) says :

      Heather, I believe you have are a writer! Your words are beautiful, and I love how you call Sara a Warrior Princess. Can I quote you on my site? My site should be listed below where I made a comment. Or here: BellaOnline.com – The Voice of Women, Cancer site. Thanks!

  7. Diana Haye says :

    The first SCAR Project photo I saw, was yours. I knew then that I had to bring this exhibition to LA and I am. Thank you for sharing your story. Diana, SPLA Producer

  8. Rann Patterson (@RannPatterson) says :

    Sara, you’re beautiful! Inside and out, absolutely. I pray for your continued health and that you will see your heart’s desires fulfilled! I am two-time cancer survivor, I did not have breast cancer, although it was my reproductive system that was removed. I met my oncologist on my 26th birthday.

    I am now 55, and editor of the Cancer site at BellaOnline.com. I am in the process of several new articles on breast cancer, and will be featuring one soon on the SCAR Project. Never been one for fluff, I promise each of you I’ll do my best to write the same truth as David has been able to “tell” with his lens and beautiful heart and “eye”.

    Every one of you amazes me. God bless you.

    David, I’ve never had anything move me like this has. Thank you…

  9. Jen says :

    Sarah,

    Your photograph is what got me through my PBM in March because it is the only medium I’ve found that remotely captures what this experience truly feels like. Your words mirror my thoughts about how it feels to lose both breasts in your 20s. Thank you so very much for sharing your experience and for raising awareness about the profound emotional and physical toll of this awful disease in young women.

  10. Alice says :

    You are beautiful.

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