My first full-time job teaching writing was at a small university in Pennsylvania in the early 90s. This was long before I knew I would be stricken with cancer, not once, but twice. Back then, cancer was something other people got, and I just observed their struggle from “the wings.”
At this school, there was a controversy brewing. A female philosophy teacher had been hired who had just undergone brain surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor. She had a grizzly fresh scar running across the top of her head. It was ugly and scary to look at, the kind of scar Frankenstein might have running across his head. The “problem” was that the young professor did not want to cover the recent scar/incision with a scarf, a wig or a hat. She wanted to go au naturel. The woman wanted to “own” her tragedy and didn’t see the need to cover up the wound. Well, this divided the whole school staff. Some people thought that Dr. Megan White (not her real name) should hide the evidence of her recent cancer, and some people believed she shouldn’t.
That year, I went to a President’s luncheon, where I was immediately quizzed by certain staff members about how I felt about the issue.
“I think she should do what she wants to do,” I said.
“Don’t you think the massive scar is too offensive for college students to see?”
“Not at all.” I think I said something like, “It’s part of her journey.”
Instantly, I felt alienated by the women who had inquired about my feelings on the issue.
But it didn’t matter what I thought. Dr. White knew her own mind and wasn’t going to be pushed around or coerced into donning a hat, or a wig, for that matter. She displayed the scar proudly; she had survived something awful, and she was better for it.
Well, now I find myself in a similar situation. Last year, I had my whole right breast removed to take off an angiosarcoma. Consequently, my right side is flat; there is no breast tissue left.
The problem is that my breast prosthesis is very uncomfortable, and I hate it. I want to go “au naturel” like Dr. Megan White did, but I’m afraid I might make my college students uncomfortable. Aren’t women supposed to have two breasts? I just have one, and it’s not even a real breast; it’s an implant.
Will I seem freakish to them? They all know I had cancer. They should be able to put two and two together and realize that the breast had to be removed to save my life. (It would almost be better if I didn’t have any breasts. At least then, I would look symmetrical.)
I’m just not into the cosmetic approach to breast loss. Being a one-breasted woman is part of my journey.
God, am I going to offend someone? Should I play it safe and wear the prosthesis?
Sometimes life gives us the opportunity to rehearse what we’d do in certain situations by watching others go through them. I observed Dr. White’s strength and courage in her difficult time battling cancer. In fact, I stood behind her and supported her decision to display the evidence of her recent surgery.
If Dr. White could display the evidence of cancer, I guess I can, too.
Thank you, Megan, for teaching me, and leading me on a difficult, but real path.