Breast Cancer is NOT a Scarlet Letter
[I met today’s guest blogger at the first planning committee meeting for The SCAR Project DC exhibition. I was instantly drawn to Lauren, not just because of her striking though gentle beauty (as you can see in her SCAR portrait below) but also (as you will see when you read her story) because she is a kindred writing spirit. Since getting to know her something else that really puts the L in Lauren, methinks, is best summed up in some lyrics she posted recently on Facebook: “Until the referee rings the bell/Until both your eyes start to swell/Until the crowd goes home/What we gonna do y’all?/Give em hell, turn their heads/Gonna live life ’til we’re dead./Give me scars, give me pain/Then they’ll say to me, say to me, say to me/There goes the fighter, there goes the fighter/Here comes the fighter/That’s what they’ll say to me, say to me, say to me/This one’s a fighter.”* Which is summed up perfectly, methinks in the slideshow I’ve added at the end of her guest post.]
Guest Post by SCAR Girl Lauren
As a healthy and active young woman, I was under the impression or, in hindsight the delusion, that I was impervious to life-threatening illnesses or events. I simply believed that if I worked hard and was a good person that life would reciprocate in kind. So when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2009 at age twenty-eight, while my husband was on his second tour in Iraq, you could imagine that my naive “vie en rose” attitude quickly shattered. I was left asking the question “why?” Why had this happened to me given that breast cancer is considered an affliction of the post-menopausal woman? Had I done something wrong during my early years (an occasional drink too-many in college) or did I have some genetic component lurking in the family pool that I didn’t know about? But like so many women slapped in the face by cancer, I didn’t have much time to dwell on these feelings. A bilateral mastectomy on October 16th quickly made me realize that shitty things can happen to good people and that there was simply no rationale for it.
Looking into the mirror for the first time after my surgery was a truly humbling experience and visually captured, for me, what “surviving” cancer really meant. That whoever I once was, I would never physically be again, that my new corporeality was an altered one that I would have to get used to. Removing the gauze pads revealed swollen water-filled pseudo breasts and bruises around my incisions. I no longer had nipples, but in their place I had angry looking scars. The one on the right ran the length of my breast and curved up toward my armpit in a smirk, a fitting visage for the “diseased” betrayer of my body. The left breast had a small straight line, like a mute partner guilty by proxy. I also had drains protruding from under my arms, the bulbous grenade portion of which was cradled in a little fabric belt that was slung around my waist. I felt alien, ugly and more like some macabre B-movie octopus than a woman. As I inspected myself in the mirror, my husband drew warm water in the pink plastic basin they sent me home with from the hospital. He gingerly took the washcloth, soaped it up and helped to bathe me and wash my hair. I didn’t have the energy to do it myself.
I couldn’t believe the spectacle I saw reflected back at me and I began to cry. I never had to depend on anyone for this kind of daily activity and yet here we were. I get that in our marriage vows we agreed to be there for one another in sickness and in health, but I never imagined that we would test the theory when we were so young. Extremely self-conscious, I wondered how Mark felt to see my body reduced to something unfamiliar and bizarrely reconstructed. How could he find me attractive anymore when I was so changed, having lost those attributes which society deems so intrinsically feminine and esthetic? While such thoughts may seem superficial, addressing the feelings surrounding the physical alterations of my treatment really forced me to reexamine who I was aside from societal standards of beauty and worth. And though it has been a long and particularly emotional struggle to come to terms with my post-cancer body, what I’ve learned on my expedition through illness has been liberating and transformative – especially when it comes to David Jay’s The Scar Project.
I randomly navigated to the website one afternoon, curious as to what breast reconstruction looked like for other women my age. The first portrait I came to was this stunning image of a pregnant woman with a deep scar in place of her right breast, her fair skin radiantly contrasted against a dark backdrop. I remember how strong and unapologetic she looked. “This is who I am” she seemed to say to me from the screen of my laptop. At that moment, hope blossomed. I, who have yet to have children or to learn if that’s even feasible at this point, could now imagine the possibility that cancer had not usurped the opportunity of motherhood from me because there was Emily, as bold and brave as an Amazon, defying cancer and not only living life but creating it too! Her strength and courage, along with the photos and stories of other SCAR models (a shout out to Vanessa, the two Saras, Eliza, and Barbie) have inspired me to participate in the Project so that I too can do my part to increase awareness of young women’s vulnerability to breast cancer.
I consider it an honor to be a SCAR model; that photo shoot with David meant so much to me. For the first time in a long time, I felt beautiful and actually portrayed as who I truly am. I’ve since realized that my scars are not damaging scarlet letters of disease and imperfection so much as they are physical testimonials of my journey upon this earth. My experience with The SCAR Project has not only facilitated the acceptance of my wounds (physical and emotional) to find the beauty, grace and peace from within, it has also allowed me to transform my breast cancer into something powerful that will impact others. Whether that means showing young women with breast cancer that they are not alone in their experience or illustrating what reconstruction can look like – it definitely affirms that the reality of breast cancer has nothing to do with pink ribbons, commercialism, or walking until doomsday. All you have to do is look into a SCAR model’s eyes to grasp what reality is for the women photographed and to sense the collective frustration that we need to find a damn cure already. While I love my fellow SCAR sisters, there are already too many of us (including women in their teens, early twenties and thirties we’ve lost to this disease) for society to maintain the status quo of what they call breast cancer “awareness.”