The altered body

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By Caitlin Kelly

This week, a year ago, a female surgeon — wearing monkey socks she proudly showed me beforehand, sharing a laugh I needed — removed a small growth from my left breast.

Today it’s a thumb-length pale pink scar I see every day. Since the end of 20 days’ radiation treatment in November 2018, my skin there is now brown and freckled, unlikely to change. The skin is also still orange peel-ish in texture, odd and unpleasant to the touch or appearance.

The minuscule black dots on my back and stomach, used to guide the radiation machine, are still there as well.

And there’s nothing to be done but accept it.

Serious illness will knock any vanity out of you, no matter how we hope to remain forever pretty or thin or strong.

If we survive it, we’re forever altered, our bodies a map of our journey.

After a decade or two, our bodies bear witness: scars, wrinkles, a few persistent injuries that twinge us on a rainy day.

My two favorite scars are maybe half an inch in length, almost matching, one on the inside of either wrist — both the result of great adventures I thoroughly enjoyed at the time.

One, falling off a moped in northern Thailand, as I and my first husband rode to the Burmese border. The other, sustained by scraping against a metal cable while crewing aboard a Long Island yacht in a fall race.

I have three little scars on the top of each knee, like the top of a coconut, from meniscus repairs, also the result of a highly active life.

Friends who have faced multiple surgeries know this all too well.

Our bodies demand repair.

If we’re fortunate, we’re treated with skill and kindness and heal.

As long as my body is able to function freely — and thank heaven, for now it still is — I don’t care as much how it looks as what it can do.

Grateful to be here, scars and all.

 

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Life After Stitches (or Staples)

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Image by Andy G via Flickr

One of the best writers at The New York Times, I think, is Dana Jennings, an editor there, who has been writing about his brutal and exhausting battle with prostate cancer. Unlike much Times’ copy, which can be polite, accurate but bloodless, Jennings’ personal essays on this subject practically jump off the page and grab you by the throat. They’re not always fun, but they remind me, anyway, what great writing is about.

In today’s Times’ column, Cases, a weekly, long-running feature about the personal experience of illness or healthcare (open to all writers, I’ve written two of them), he writes eloquently about the many scars his body now carries, from childhood mishaps to major abdominal surgery to acne scars on his back. His honesty is extraordinary, and, I think refreshing.

“For all the potential tales of woe they suggest, scars are also signposts of optimism. If your body is game enough to knit itself back together after a hard physical lesson, that means you’re still alive, means you’re on the path toward healing…The scars remind me, too, that in this vain culture our vanity needs to be punctured and deflated — and that’s not such a bad thing. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, better to be scarred and living than a dead lion.”

As someone with coconut knees (tiny indentations on the top of each, like a coconut, from one arthroscopy apiece) and two scars on the inside of each wrist — one, a half-inch souvenir of a motorbike ride in Thailand gone awry and the other from scraping against a wet wire during a gale-force wind while sailboat racing off Long Island Sound — I value my scars as well. Like Jennings reminds us, they’re the roadmap of our lives, reminding us, and those who get close enough to see them, of some of the best, and worst, places we’ve been.