Scars, Stares and Silence: A Summer of Self-Consciousness

They are angry.

Purple, raised, asymmetrical.

Shockingly dark against my pale skin.

Four marks on my lower abdomen, a sort of connect the dots drawing a rather crooked X pointing to the source of my shame. A treasure map leading to emptiness.

They are the visible stigma of my ordeal, the proof I am not whole. 

My hysterectomy scars.

I trace them with my fingers, often. The one on the left, slightly more raised than the others. The one on top of my navel, long and thin, the one that took ages to heal.

I refuse to look at them. I do not know why, considering I have no problem exploring them with my fingers.

But I will not look down. I will avert my eyes in the mirror. I will cover them up so I do not have to inadvertently see them. 

But others do.

I have been very careful not to show them to anyone. I have gone swimming daily since the spring, and I always wear a full-coverage one-piece swimming costume that keeps them hidden from view, concealed from strangers. No-one can see them, no-one suspects a thing.

Until yesterday.

The much expected and much dreaded family holiday started, complete with extended family time, lazy afternoons by the swimming pool and games nights.

I knew it would be too hot for my usual swimwear (and also, no-one wants a racer back and swimming shorts tan line), so I went on a hunt for the perfect bikini before I left.

I was not concerned with finding something flattering as much as I was with making sure it would cover as much of my scars as possible.

I thought I had done pretty well. All in check, except the one above my navel, which still peaks out from all the high-waisted bikini bottoms I could find, a few centimetres of raised, uneven skin.

I somehow thought that it would not matter as much, because I was with family. Family are respectful. Family would not stare like strangers would. 

But they do. And worse, they know what caused the scars, and yet they still stare.

My mum in particular. And it hurts.

It hurts when her eyes will not leave my stomach. It hurts when she will not say a word about it. It hurts when she will look at my scar every time I get in or out of the pool. It hurts because she is uncomfortable with my scars and my body and makes it obvious whilst also not bringing it up.

I never used to be self-conscious much, but cancer has changed that. I did so much work over the last few months to try and get more comfortable with my situation and my cancer-survivor body, and it all got wiped in the blink of an eye. More like, in that second they refused to blink and look away. But also refused to engage and bring up the truth.

No-one has said a word about cancer.  About my recovery.

I am seeing extended family,  grandparents, aunts, uncles for the first time in over two years. Last they saw me, I had not even been diagnosed.

And now, it is being ignored. Swept under the carpet. If we do not ask questions, it does not exist, does it? No-one asked how I was doing. Where in my recovery I was.

But they stare, and that leaves me feeling both ashamed and lonely.

Either stare and bring it up, or avert your eyes and stay silent.

I will feel uncomfortable either way, but at least I will have someone to share that discomfort with if you say something.

We do not talk enough about the mental load associated with cancer and making people comfortable with it.

Having to take that first step. Forcing people to acknowledge the fact that it exists, when I myself am not comfortable with it. I cannot ignore it like you can. You bring it up by constantly staring at my scars, you should at least offer to take some of the load off.

It should not be up to me to ease the discomfort you make obvious, but also refuse to bring up.

***

At least that has given me an idea for my next few posts: mental load , loneliness and selfishness in cancer recovery.

Walking Down Memory Lane, Part One: Avoidance

It took me a while to get this post out. I started about seven different drafts, and it took exactly eighteen days from the moment I wrote the title until I finally got the courage to finish it and the nerve to post it.

It is not my best work but I cannot stand to go over the same words again, erasing them, reworking them, rewriting them. It is ironic, considering the subject matter.

I never used to be an avoider. I liked to confront things head-on. I did not shy away from difficult situations, I strove in the face of challenges, I liked to take risks, take the plunge, run away with things.

I have changed. There are routes that I can no longer bear to take, people that I dread to see, voices that I do not want to hear.

I have known triggers. I know that if I walk past the hospital where I was diagnosed, there is a 70% chance I will be assaulted by unwanted images and memories. Sure, there are days when I feel like I will be fine. Days I know I can’t even attempt it, when I am close to tears already. And days when it could go either way. So I avoid it, I do not take the risk.

I cannot talk to my mum on the phone without being back into that room at the hospital where I broke the news to her. Video calls are fine, but sitting on my sofa, and answering the phone? I feel sick at the mere thought of it. The feeling of the phone in my hand, against my ear. The memories are vivid. I can remember the smell, the plant in the corner, the colour of the cushions. One phone call, and I am back in that room.

There are clothes I can no longer wear. The trousers I had on the day of my diagnosis, I gave to a charity shop a few months ago. The shirt I really liked, so I still have it in the back of my drawers. I hope that one day I will be able to put it on again without drowning in my own tears.

So I avoid all these things that I know will make me uncomfortable. I am not strong enough to face them head-on. I force myself to go to hospital appointments, and I find excuses for anything else that I know will trigger flashbacks and unwanted memories. I get enough random intrusive thoughts in my day-to-day life to choose not subject myself to these situations on purpose.

Until I can’t avoid it anymore.

In late May, I was told I should go to the office for one day, to pick up my new laptop.

I have been working from home (and complaining about it) for fifteen months now. At first, I was elated. The office, yay! Something different. Something I had been pushing for for a year.

I started making plans about a week in advance, arranging a day for me to go in, planning to meet my manager there, have lunch… I was so excited.

And then, on that same night I had learnt I would have to go into the office, I had one of my worst panic attacks so far this year. My brain just started remembering stuff I had pushed aside for a year, making links I had never thought of, and generally working overdrive.

We moved to that office on the day I had the biopsy which would lead to my diagnosis. The date is probably not relevant to anyone else. I had never even made the link before that day. But that means my cancer journey actually began on the day we moved into that office. The cancerous cells that would define the rest of my life were sent to the lab on the same day I rolled my pedestal under my new desk.

I spent hours replaying that day in my mind. The bus I took to the hospital, and then back home. The train I got into work. The lunch I had with my friends, where I told them about the appointment, and that ‘it looked like polyps, but they would confirm in a couple of weeks. It was probably fine though’. How relaxed I was about the whole thing. Oh, how naive I was.

Obviously, that was not enough for my brain. Over the next week, it decided to remind me of every step of my cancer journey that took place in the office.

The day I came in after hearing the news. The way my friends, my manager greeted me. The moment my phone rang at my desk – my dad calling after my mum had given him the news. How I sat crying my heart out in the meeting room. And the other meeting room. And my manager’s office. And the phone booth. And this, and that room.

Every phone call. Every appointment made, every person I told. Oh, that meeting I had with my team two days after the diagnosis. Where I sat, willing myself not to break, trying to stop the tears, to stay strong, to crack a joke that would make it feel less real. The stairs where I sat when I told a friend before we went on lunch.

The memories are so vivid. I remember every second in that office in the weeks before and after my diagnosis. Every hard, terrifying second. Every moment I wish I could forget.

I was terrified. Suddenly, going into the office seemed unsurmontable. If just thinking about it sent me into such a state, surely I would not be able to actually do it.

I was frustrated. I went back to the office after the operation and before covid sent us all home. I was fine. I was perfectly fine, I was happy. And I know there were some good memories in that office too. Decorating the place for Christmas. My friends’ support. My colleagues’ little attentions. I am crying whilst writing this. I wish I could remember those moments rather than the ones that cause me so much pain.

That week leading to my going back to the office was one of the longest and hardest I had experienced in a while. Every moment I was not focused on work, I was reliving those same memories, over and over again. I was crying at night instead of sleeping.

I thought about cancelling a million times. Surely I could speak up. Ask for the laptop I needed to pick up to be couriered over to me.

But I refused to do it. There is a time for avoidance, but I cannot let my fear, my feelings and my memories control my life.

And so I went.

(To be continued)