These battle scars, don’t look like they’re fading,
Don’t look like they’re ever going away
They ain’t never gonna change
These battle… -Lupe Fiasco, “Battle Scars”
When I first got diagnosed with cancer, I heard that “you never come out of the battle unscarred.” I definitely believe this is true. Not just in terms of physical ones, but emotional ones as well. But most importantly, they don’t have to be your own personal burden to bear. Back then, I had never considered the possibility that scars don’t necessarily have to be bad things. Scars can be signs of change, strength, or memories. I now look back and remember the first scar that seemed like a huge deal to me.
When I was in 8th grade, I traveled to Bethesda, Maryland to NIH (National Institutes Of Health) for a surgery that would save my life and most certainly change it, for better or for worse. It was a risky thoracic operation that had sent many surgeons here in Portland running away with their tails tucked between their legs at the mere thought of it. I was lucky enough to come across someone during a clinical trial who had both the courage and kindness to attempt something so maverick.
The night before it happened was filled with fear and uncertainty. Though the surgeon had agreed to try his best, I had gone through a few surgeries at that point. I knew there were no guarantees in the operating room. After about 12 hours in the OR, I miraculously emerged out alive. Sure, I was on a ventilator and had 6 chest tubes, but hey! I wasn’t going to be focusing on those small details in contrast to the enormity of the situation. I made the best of it, gradually shedding tubes as I recovered and explored all over the enormous campus. One of my favorite places to go was Au Bon Pain, a delicious coffee shop and bakery, that my dad liked to joke was an “au bon pain in his wallet!”
However, when the immediate crisis started to pass, I was finally aware of more trivial matters. Case in point: the startling appearance of the sizable incision running down the middle of my chest. Though it’s not like I refused to wear anything but turtlenecks, I was still definitely more self conscious and aware of myself. Cancer isn’t something that you can see from the outside, but once it affects your appearance (such as losing your hair), all patients say the reality of the situation becomes harder and more believable. It was and still is a major deal to me, but not in the way that it used to be.
The truth is, outward scars fade. I’m now confident enough to wear anything I want to. But inner ones don’t always fade. This may seem like a bad thing when it comes to tough or scary experiences, but the scar doesn’t have to be the particular memory that goes along with it. It can be whatever you take from the experience, and most people are more in control of that then they think. Although my surgery at NIH was scary and hard, I learned a lot from the month I spent recovering there.
My family and I were able to meet amazing people in similar situations smiling in the face of hardship. Though everyone there was dealing with something equally sucky, they didn’t let it affect their outlook. We shared groceries on the clinical center’s trips to the unfamiliar East coast supermarkets. We helped and connected with others that were facing some of the exact challenges we were. And just like that, a person who was previously a stranger becomes a friendly face. Someone to pray with or pray for. Someone to commiserate with. Someone who knows. There’s a special bond that you share with someone when you go through the same things. It can be as simple as relating to the annoyances caused by little sisters, 🙂 the difficulty of a challenge problem on a math test, or just how unfair your soccer coach is being when he assigns yet another set of G.I. Joes. Being able to really, truly know what it’s like creates something that the two of you share, and it’s amazing how much closer that can bring you to someone. I believe this is especially true for cancer patients, a point that I discussed in my earlier post about Camp Ukandu.
So now, after learning this important lesson, if someone were to ask me if I regretted my time at NIH…I could honestly say no. The time there gave me an enormous gift. Besides the obvious of saving my life, it taught me the importance of connecting with others. There really isn’t a need to suffer alone. You’d be surprised how much bearable your problems become after being able to share an experience with someone. Because of this, instead of holing up in my room at Doernbecher 10 South, I go out to to the common areas to meet other patients, especially those who are the same age. I try to do this even when I’m having a not so great day, because otherwise I’d be missing out on so many relationships. I’m forever grateful for this scar. The picture above is living proof.