Learning to appreciate my cancer scars as souvenirs from a journey

Learning to appreciate my cancer scars as souvenirs from a journey

During a recent vacation in Indonesia, I did so much walking that I developed a tender bruise on my left big toe. By the time I got home, it no longer hurt, but the dark purple spot under my toenail was still there. Through some amateur medical research (Googling), I identified it as a harmless “subungual hematoma” and learned it could be visible for up to nine months. Oh well, I thought, I’ll just consider this a souvenir. Every time I see it, I’ll remember the fun times I had with my family walking around Bali. Come sandal season, I won’t hide it with nail polish; it’ll become a conversation starter: “What happened to your toe?” “It’s a souvenir from Bali,” I’ll answer.

Then I realized this approach is a good way to think about my three surgical scars and four tattoo dots. These are souvenirs from a very different journey: my seven months of treatment for breast cancer in 2021. The scars are from a lumpectomy, a lymph node removal, and the chemo port that was temporarily implanted in my arm. The tattoo dots were an indelible map to help the radiation technicians align the machinery. Until Bali, I would notice one of these permanent marks on my body and remember the tough times: the scary first days of not knowing how serious my ultimately treatable cancer was, the exhaustion and nausea during chemo cycles, and the difficulty swallowing anything but soup during radiation.

My purple bruise from Bali helped to shine a more positive light on these other, hidden medical souvenirs. Instead of remembering the fear and discomfort, I now think about the positives – cancer’s silver linings: The new knowledge I gained about hormonal receptors and interventional radiology. All those friends who brought meals and spent hours on the phone, helping me think through decisions. My university reducing my teaching load that year. My hair growing back soft and curly. Jewish rituals I created for a pre-chemo haircut and a post-treatment bell ringing that others have found useful. I realized I should remember my cancer experiences – both good and bad – as a journey that I was fortunate and proud to complete stronger and (mostly) intact.

Like countless others in the Sharsheret community, my cancer souvenirs are not conspicuous. The port scar on my arm has occasionally been a conversation starter during the hottest days of summer, but the others remain private. I know this makes me more fortunate than the many patients who lose a breast, a limb, their vision, or their lives. Or those who live with chronic pain, fatigue, or other symptoms. Just another reason to look at my scars and dots and be grateful, not resentful.

I came home from Bali with other souvenirs: a wooden flute, a pair of flip flops, an embroidered sash, a small painting of the mountain we climbed at sunrise. And, of course, the hundreds of photos. When I encounter these, I won’t think of my snorkeling sunburn, the jetlag, or the cold I caught on the way home. I’ll think of the friendly people I met, the beautiful views I saw, the Hindu rituals I learned about, and the many fruits and noodle dishes I enjoyed. Similarly, when I catch a glimpse of my scars, I’ll choose to remember the positives of my cancer journey. Like my travels to countries around the world, my illness and recovery are part of my life story. The souvenirs I’ve collected – whether material or medical, whether I wanted them or not – tell that story.