Apologizing for My Scars After Breast Cancer Surgery


It's amazing how we feel the need to apologize. We want to make others comfortable. Sometimes it just doesn't work.

Sitting in the waiting room at my cardiologist's office, I watch the people coming in for their appointments. Across the room, I see an elderly woman sitting alone, reading a magazine. Next to her sits a man in jeans, mid 30s, watching the clock. It's apparent he's here on his lunch break and needs to get back to his job. People. Just regular people. From all walks of life. We're all here to take care of our hearts — our most vital organ.

When my name is called, I see the sweet nurse open the door and wait for me. She has the most radiant smile. Her name is JoAnn. She's one of my favorites. We walk over to the scale and I take off my jacket. She smiles at me, knowing that I'm not really hot, I just want to shed a few extra pounds before getting on the scale. She writes down the number and leads me down the hall to the examination room. After taking my vital signs, she sits down and we talk for a few minutes. She asks me about my family, the holiday preparations and how I've been. It's nice to have a pleasant conversation with someone who truly seems interested in my life.

JoAnn motions for me to lie back on the table as she rolls a portable EKG machine over to my side. She asks me to lift my shirt and before I do, I tell her, "I'm sorry you have to see this."

"See what?" she asks.

I lift my shirt. I hear her inhale sharply, as I say, "These — my scars. I'm so sorry you have to see their ugliness."

She just smiles and says, "I had no idea."

She asks when I had surgery and I told her the first surgery was in July 2014 and the second one was in August of this year. She tells me I look amazing and I'm so thankful. I've hidden the evidence of breast cancer well.

I don't know why, but I feel like I have to explain to her the reason I didn't wear my prostheses today. As I talk about them, my silicone girls, she listens intently.

"They're just so darn heavy," I tell her, "and so uncomfortable too."

She nods and I go on, telling her it's not so bad being flat chested.

JoAnn leaves the room and I wait. Sitting on the exam table, I feel the white liner paper on the table crinkling under my bottom. The sun is beating down on me and it's uncomfortably warm in this tiny room. I decide to move to the chair in the corner. Just moving there is markedly cooler. I wait.

The doctor comes in after about thirty minutes. Cardiologists are busy guys. I don't expect him to apologize. I know he's a caring physician and he's dedicated. He takes his time with his patients and I know he'll do the same with me.

He sits down at the computer and pulls up my records. We go through all my medications and ailments before he examines me. I take a risk and ask if he'll have time to look at my throat and listen to my lungs while I'm there. I tell him it would help me kill two birds with one stone. He's OK with it! I'm thankful. I've saved another copay.

After the exam, the doc tells me I'm doing just fine, regarding my heart.

He says, "How does a year sound?"

I give him a puzzled look. He explains he doesn't need to see me for a year unless I have any problems between now and then. I smile. We walk to the checkout counter and he hands me my prescriptions. Everyone in his office is so warm and friendly. I visit with the receptionist for a few minutes and then head toward the elevator.

Crossing through the hospital parking lot, I dodge cars pulling in and out of parking spaces. This is a busy place today. I finally reach my car, unlock it and climb inside. I sit there for a few minutes processing everything.

All of a sudden it hits me ... Why did I apologize to JoAnn for having to see my scars? Was it because I felt the need to shield her from cancer's ugliness? Was I embarrassed for not having breasts? I had to think about it. Yes, I was still a little embarrassed for not having breasts. Even though I like to pretend I've gotten past it, the truth is that I have not. It still hurts that my femininity has been stripped away from me due to a cluster of malignant cells that invaded my chest wall and lymph nodes.

Yes, I did feel I needed to protect her by warning her about my hideous chest. I'm a mother and a grandmother. I'm a protector. It's what I do. I've seen the scars for over a year and a half. I've had time to get used to them, but others have not. The scars are long, ugly purple, angry looking incisions slicing my chest wall in half horizontally. I look like something out of a horror movie where an angry slasher went wild with a box cutter.

Today was the first time since surgery that I've felt the need to say, "I'm sorry you're going to have to see my scars," and it will be the last. I realized, as I sat in the car and pondered my conversation with the nurse, that there was no apology needed. I should have been proud to lift my shirt and exclaim, "Do you want to see my battle scars?"

That would have been telling the truth, too. I have been in a battle — the fight for my life. I'm a wounded warrior. I'm a veteran (of sorts). I won't get any badges of honor for my courage other than the right to be alive. I'll take it.

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