My scars form a lopsided winking face on the upper half of my body. Since I do not constantly wear turtlenecks, there is usually some visible sign of the trauma my body has incurred.
When I was a 4 year old in preschool, I was the bald cancer kid, but my peers never treated me differently. By five, my hair had grown back and my scars were starting to heal and fade. I started kindergarten, and the only reminder that I had had cancer was the occasional follow up appointment. I wasn’t hiding from my past, but my past was hidden. When I had play-dates with friends, my parents would need to communicate that I may tire more easily and need a nap, or we would go swimming and my friends would see my scars when I was in a bikini. No one pried or gawked; or maybe I was too young to notice.
My scars were a part of me and I didn’t know anything different.
I remember the first time I realized I was different. I was standing in line for a water slide at Canada’s Wonderland and I was wearing a bikini. I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. One of the girls who was standing in front of me turned around and asked me, “What’s that scar from?”
“Oh, I had cancer.”
I was meek. As if the word cancer summed up every treatment, every neutropenic episode, every scan, and every long wait to hear about results. As I collected more scars, I got creative with my stories and more proud of my scars. After my second pacemaker was implanted, I went to a concert with a bandage protecting my swollen scar. A curious security guard asked me the usual question.
“I was attacked by a bear.”
I happily danced the night away. It was fun to then see peoples’ faces as I explained what really happened.
“But you’re so young.”
“Yes, I know.” I could handle those reactions of disbelief.
Now, my heart is regularly biopsied, which means a catheter is inserted into a vein in my neck. I have a scar on my neck that resembles a hickey, especially right after I have the procedure. One day, after one of my biopsies, I was walking down the street with my friend. After passing a man, I heard him yell, “Nice hickey”.
At that point, I didn’t have the energy to turn around and explain to him what happened. Not long after I went into a coffee shop and the barista looked me in the eye and said the same thing. I told him it was a scar. He still didn’t believe me, so I told him he could feel the raised tissue and explained my story. He poured my tea and didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t want to make him feel bad, but I was fed up with being mocked for circumstances that I could not control.
Cancer and its long-term effects have left marks on my body. These marks often give people the idea that they have the right to know or assume what has happened to me. I have never been ashamed of my scars, but talking about them often requires recounting experiences that are fraught with emotion. It is especially hard to do this when trying to dispel peoples’ mocking assumptions.
Part of recovery has meant learning how to address peoples’ uncomfortable or inappropriate questions and reactions. I have had to learn to be calm and patient in my explanations, and remember that I am (incorrectly) assumed to be a healthy young adult. Some will stare, jaws may drop and some may not know how to respond. I will smile without shame and my scars will wink back with pride. I am proud that my scars represent the obstacles that I have been lucky enough to overcome. My scars are a reminder that despite how angry I get at my body’s attempt to destroy itself, my body also has the amazing capability to heal. And I am learning to forgive.
Maya Stern is a 26 year old long-term cancer survivor. She graduated with a Masters of Public Health, and a Bachelors of Environmental Studies. She practices yoga, and enjoys reading and writing. She is in the process of writing a book detailing her experiences with chronic illness. Maya is pursuing a career where she can empower others to take control of their own health.