Learning to Love My Breast Cancer Scars

The scars from breast cancer surgery mar our bodies forever. Learning to accept them is a vital part of healing.

Scars. They occur when we are wounded. At first, the injury is painful and tender. The wound is open and raw. It oozes with pus and blood. As the wound begins to heal, our amazing bodies work on the wound to close and seal it and we’re left with a scar. On my body, I have many scars. Some scars were accidental and some occurred as a result of well-planned surgeries. Scars tell a little part of our life story.

As I look at my hand, I see reminders of a Christmas many years ago. As I was reaching to take a batch of cookies out of the oven, I accidentally touched the top of the oven with my hand as I hurriedly removed the baked delicacies for my grandchildren. That scar is healed now and no longer hurts, but the painful memory is there. Every time I see that scar, I can’t help but remember the hot, searing pain of the oven as my hand brushed against it, but I also remember the laughter and joy the cookies brought to hungry little mouths that day. There’s another scar on my hand, a star-shaped scar. I received it when the dermatologist removed a small melanoma. The outpatient surgery was quick and five tiny stitches created a permanent reminder of that day. My body is riddled with scars. I’ve lived a good life and have worked hard on my body. Most of the scars I earned by clumsiness, running into a cabinet or some other obstacle. Very few of my scars were due to acts of bravery. And while my scars uniquely mark my body, I’ve come to accept and even love them because they are a part of me. They are evidence of my growth. But some may ask how I can love my scars, especially the scars from my war with breast cancer. It wasn’t easy. It took some time.

When I came home from surgery, I was tightly bandaged. I had no idea what my scars looked like and I was very afraid to see them. I didn’t look for days. When it came time to change my bandages, one of my daughters or my husband would do it. They’d encourage me to look, but I refused. I wasn’t ready. A week passed and soon, the doctor told me I could get a shower. She instructed me how to protect the drainage bulbs attached to my chest and encouraged me to enjoy my first post-surgical shower. My husband helped me undress and I did not look down at my chest. I was determined not to peek. I was scared I might be horrified by what I saw. When I completed my shower, he came in to help me dry and dress. I continued to avert my eyes. He told me it would good for me to look but I couldn’t. A few more weeks passed and I continued to heal from bilateral mastectomies. My body was feeling better and I was getting stronger.

One day, when my husband was at work and my daughters were not visiting, I decided to shower on my own. I’d learned how to safely pin the drainage bulbs to a shoestring tied around my neck and I felt like I was ready to do this without assistance. I removed the compression bandages carefully, unwinding them and placing them on the counter. I did not look at my chest while I was doing it, which made it a rather difficult task. As I was unwinding the last bandage, a little voice inside my head said, “You really need to look at your chest.” I placed my hand on the counter for support and looked straight into the mirror. I stood for several minutes gazing in amazement. Where my soft, lovely breasts used to be there was now a long, angry, red, horizontal scar. It ran from underneath my armpit all the way across to the other side of my body and up under the arm on that side. My chest resembled something out of a horror movie! I looked like I had been attacked with a chainsaw. The tears began to flow and they kept on coming. It was as if a dam had burst and all the emotion I’d kept bottled up inside for the past weeks came rushing forth. After I had a good, long cry I gingerly stepped into the shower. The trauma of seeing my scar had been too much. I spent the rest of the day in solitude. I knew I had to come to grips with what I’d seen. For days afterward, I made myself look at my scar. Pretty soon, it wasn’t as hideous to me as it had first been. I was learning to accept it.

Many months have passed since my initial surgery. My scar has faded and is no longer an angry shade of red. It’s no longer raw and tender. I can run my hand over it and feel no pain. I’m not repulsed. I’m not ashamed. Now I look at my scar as a battle wound. Its evidence of a war hard fought. Of course, I involuntarily surrendered vitally important parts of my body in the fight against cancer; but my metamorphosis is almost complete. I’m beginning to emerge from my protective cocoon. Most certainly, I have been broken, wounded and scarred, but I’ve also been changed. My scars remind me of the physical and emotional pain I’ve suffered. They also remind me I’m still here. I’m alive.

Learning to love my scars has been a difficult process. It took a while to get past hating them, but I’m thankful I can look at them now without crying. That long, horizontal scar across my chest will always be a constant reminder that cancer tried to kill me but I won. I am the victor! And I still have a whole lot of living left to do.