Dana Stewart was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 32. She is the co-founder of a cancer survivorship organization called The Dragonfly Angel Society. She volunteers as an advocate and mentor, focusing on young adults surviving cancer. She enjoys writing about life as a cancer survivor, as well as connecting survivors to the resources, inspirations and stories that have helped her continue to live her best life, available at www.dragonflyangelsociety.com.
When we are in situations in which others will see our cancer scars, do we have to explain them or worry about what someone else thinks?
I often talk about my fears of cancer, which always circle back to fear that it will come back or is already back and I just don't know it. I know it's a typical fear of cancer survivors, and even after seven years, I still find myself working through those thoughts quite consistently. The fears of recurrence often mask any other fears of cancer I have until I come across a random fear on my journey.
The latest in my not-so-frequent fears made a special appearance this week. I am in a wedding this spring. With that comes certain obligations which include wearing a bridesmaid dress. All normal activities so far, right? So where does a cancer fear fit in here? Keep with me. The usual process with getting a bridesmaid dress involves going to some sort of bridal shop and getting fitted for said dress which means getting assisted and measured by someone else. This person more often than not doesn't know you or your story. OK, usually it wouldn't matter either. Well, let's also throw in the person being fitted is a breast cancer survivor and doesn't have the same body anymore that a normal woman would have. Insert me into the story. That no-so-normal looking woman is me.
In all honesty, I am fine with my body about 90 percent of the time. I had a bilateral mastectomy seven years ago along with immediate reconstruction. So, on the outside, all looks normal. Underneath, there are scars and other factors that make me look a bit different. I don't find myself in situations in which I have to explain any scars, and I usually don't have to even tell anyone I am a breast cancer survivor unless I choose to. However, with a dress fitting, it's very hard to hide anything.
I was a little nervous showing up at the shop to try on the dress and get fitted for my size, but I figured I had no choice, these ladies in the shop were professionals and I would just have to deal. When the associate I was paired with called my name, I started to feel the anxiety. We found the dress to try on in a few sizes and walked to the looming dressing room. Of course, I needed help getting the dress on. Of course, it was strapless so I needed the assistance of the associate. I felt obligated to blurt out that I was a breast cancer survivor and had surgery so my breasts don't look like everyone else's. I kept blabbing on and on as if I had to defend the cancer, what it did to me and my choices in treating it to a complete stranger. Taking it a step further, I was explaining this to someone who in all honesty probably didn't care one bit. In fact, she helps women with dresses every day and last time I heard, I wasn't the first, last and only person to have gone through breast cancer.
I felt so self-conscious and embarrassed. Then I was mad at myself for feeling this way. I was mad at myself for feeling like I had to explain every aspect of my body to another person. It was such a frustrating event. I was so caught up that I failed to notice that the dress fit perfectly and was on sale to top it all off. And even more so, the associate didn't even blink an eye when I told her my scar stories. She just said OK and went back to getting the dress fitted properly on my body with the hopes of gaining a sale.
So, why did I make this so hard on myself? I don't know. You can say it's human to be shy or embarrassed about our bodies. Add cancer scars to the mix and you have a perfect storm. I am sad for myself that I got so worked up about what someone else would think of my scars. I am mad that I felt obligated to worry about what someone else would think. However, I am still happy it happened. I am happy because it was a reminder to me that I need to be cognoscente of that fact that I really don't have to worry about what anyone else thinks. Easy to say, but very true. I don't have to explain any of this to anyone. I am happy with my decisions in regards to what I did to fight my cancer. I certainly don't think this is the last time I will feel this way about my body or scars. I think that is okay too but I am hoping it is a reminder for the next time. Just another thing to continue to work on in my cancer survivor playbook.