Lessons From a Cancer Scar: Facing Up To Shame

September 24, 2013
By

facing shame, ashamed of face, shameMy dermatologist spotted it immediately during a full-body check this spring – an appointment I’d neglected to schedule for two years.

I had noticed the subtle indentation in my right cheek, too, but dismissed it as a stubborn acne scar that was easily disguised with an extra swipe of powder blush. Besides, I’d sworn off sunbathing, years ago, after an earlier brush with basal cell skin cancer on my shoulder. I thought I was free and clear.

But the biopsy report confirmed that a large basal cell epithelioma was spreading its roots deep beneath the surface of my cheek, an inch below my right eye. To avoid as much scarring as possible, my dermatologist referred me to a surgeon who specializes in the Mohs method, a microscopically controlled cancer surgery developed by Dr. Frederic Mohs in the 1930s. Typically lasting from five to seven hours, Mohs surgery involves removing and examining a patient’s cancerous skin tissue one layer at a time until only cancer-free tissue remains.

Afterward, the surgeon might opt to close the wound using plastic surgery techniques or allow it to heal by itself, depending on its location. The cure rate is high — up to 99 percent for some cancers. And while the stellar reputation of my surgeon was equally reassuring, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified of the procedure and the new scar I’d soon acquire.

Facing Up to Shame

There was a time when I thought I’d waded past the shallow waters of vanity and gained a deeper respect for my aging face and body. In my mid-forties, bilateral hip replacement surgery left me with a matching pair of 10-inch scars on my thighs. During the weeks of rehab after both hip surgeries, I often reminded myself that scars are emblems of a richly textured life — a survivor’s life.  Whether we’ve endured car accidents, major surgery, or military combat, scars document our personal history and bear witness to the challenges we’ve met. But a long scar on the face isn’t so easy to reconcile. In our celebrity driven culture, appearance matters more than we’d like to admit.

For women, especially, it’s hard to ignore the standards of beauty trumpeted by magazine editors and product advertisers. And it’s hard not to feel judged if we fall short of airbrushed perfection. While preparing for my Mohs procedure, I happened to be reading Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (Gotham) by sociologist Brene Brown. The book devotes several pages to the tender topic of female self-image and shame. “After all of the consciousness-raising and critical awareness, we still feel the most shame about not being thin, young, and beautiful enough,” Brown explains.

Brown’s shame research hit home the day after my surgery. Removing the pressure bandage from my face, I was ashamed to show my bruised, three-inch “Frankenstein scar” to my own husband.  This took me by surprise because I know the man loves me unconditionally, even in my frumpiest moments. Yet I avoided exposing my wound to him – and everyone else — until I’d made peace with it myself.

Healing Takes Time

As noted in the post-op instructions I was given, scars go through a maturation process and sometimes look worse as they heal. In other words, healing and “maturity” require patience. Ironically, a week before the cancer diagnosis, I’d been scouting local cosmetic departments for the best anti-wrinkle creams available. My crow’s feet and droopy jaw line were underscoring my impending senior status – and I was determined to fight them.

But my skin cancer surgery quickly altered my stance in the battle against aging. Now, wrinkles and age spots aren’t such a threat to my pride. Maintaining the health of my complexion has usurped my quest to appear younger, and wearing a good sunscreen tops my cosmetic priorities.

The new scar is healing gradually now, morphing from dark purple to pink as the weeks pass. My dermatologist tells me it will be a year before the incision is undetectable without makeup. In the meantime, I’m learning what it has to teach me. I’ve stopped wondering if other people notice my “imperfections” or see them as anything other than visible signs of my resilience or humanity. I only wish it hadn’t taken so many years – and a sobering medical diagnosis — to finally arrive at this quiet harbor of self-acceptance.

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4 Responses to Lessons From a Cancer Scar: Facing Up To Shame

  1. Lynne on September 24, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Cindy, as someone who’s had Moh’s twice on my face, I can honestly tell you that I have to look to see where my scars are. The plastic surgeon did a beautiful job! That said, if someone asks about your scar while it heals, it’s a great time to educate them on the need for SPF30 (or higher) every day of the year, regardless of season. Glad it’s behind you and keep getting regular check ups!

    • Cindy L on September 26, 2013 at 7:58 am

      Lynne — spot on, about educating others about the dangers of baking unprotected in the sun. I also appreciate hearing stories from other MOHS “survivors” who’ve had good luck with their surgeons. It does take time, though. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Carol on September 25, 2013 at 12:11 am

    I have had three basal and one squamous cell skin cancers removed-on my forehead, throat, back of the calf and most recently on my left forearm. I have tried to protect myself for many years(always wearing a high SPF sunscreen) however, my dermatologist tells me that being fair skinned and lots of sun exposure as a child growing up in Texas caused my skin cancers. I have had to come to terms each time with my not so lovely scars. My current scar on my arm is by far the largest and it seems like it is taking forever to fade! I feel your pain, but just remember we are still beautiful!

  3. Cindy L on September 26, 2013 at 7:59 am

    Very true, Carol — thank you. Truly, I have come to a wonderful place of acceptance about all of this, despite the initial trauma of the surgery. It’s healing nicely and isn’t as painful to the touch now.

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