By Erin Geddis Cummings
I can't imagine that there would be a “good” time in one’s life to have cancer, but I CAN say, that from personal experience, the teenage years isn’t one of them.
If, as a teen, you were not already wrestling with “negative Body Image,” a cancer diagnosis would get you there Pretty damn fast.
I was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma when I was fifteen, in the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school. I had finally begun to shed the baby fat that had stubbornly clung to my stomach and upper thighs- the extra poundage that had forced me to shop in the "Chubette" section of clothing stores (and yes, there really was such a department). After years of sporting a short "PIxie" bob, I had begun to grow out my hair for the first time, impatiently awaiting the day when it would be long enough to toss over my shoulder or draw up in a pony tail. The shape of my face was finally catching up to the size of my teeth, which seemed enormous, slightly crooked, and were laden with silver fillings.
Despite all these promising developments, I bore the appearance of a young woman who hadn't developed at all. I was, as they say, "flat as a pancake." I was horrified by my boyish figure. While the other girls were bemoaning the sudden explosions of their chests, I was frantically looking for a bra with a "Negative-A" cup.
I spent hours in front of my small bathroom mirror, hunting for blackheads, trying to come up with ingenious ways to straighten my wavy, unruly locks (rolling it up in empty orange juice cans, wrapping it around my head and taping it to my face), and dithering over whether or not I needed a nose job. As hard as I looked, I found few redeeming qualities in my appearance.
While hearing someone say, “You have cancer” should have been a sobering, “Come to Jesus” moment for me, it actually made me hate my body even more. Yes, I was terrified of the cancer, but the process of diagnosing my Hodgkin's and then treating it created a whole new opportunity for feeling inadequate. There was surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, all designed to cure me, but not without leaving a permanent trail of destruction.
Thanks to the "Staging Laparotomy," I had a scar that went from breastbone to pelvis, hooking around my naval and resembling a raw, red, upside-down question mark. Now that I could finally stuff myself into a bikini, I wouldn't be caught dead in one- literally. Radiation treatments to my neck made some of my hair fall out. I had hair on the top my head but nothing from the middle of my scalp on down. Later, when I started chemotherapy, much of the remaining hair fell out anyway.
Instead of picking out the right “Cover Girl” makeup for my natural skin tone, I searched for something heavy enough to hide the yellow complexion induced by a steady stream of chemotherapy drugs coursing through my veins. Nothing short of compound joint spackle would do the job. While my female classmates were tying ribbons around their tresses in colors that matched their outfit of the day, I was waking to the sight of my hair in clumps on my pillow. In short, my entire "image" could be summed up as a "Glamour Don't.” I was the perfect example of how NOT to present yourself to the outside world- as if you were destined to walk around with a permanent gray box covering your eyes in order to hide your true identity.
And all the while I thought, who will love me now?
Who would be attracted to a girl who was balding, rail thin, and looked like she was dying? And why would you want to waste your time with someone who was clearly sick? Talk about a party pooper! I tried to imagine being asked out on a date-
"Want to go to the movies?" he would ask.
"Sure!" I would say. " Just have to throw up first. But as soon as I vomit my brains out I'll be as good as new!"
Never mind the fact that in those days, people still thought you could "catch" cancer- like the flu. I could just hear the parents of my would-be date saying, "Yes, you should be nice to the poor girl. Just don't hold hands, or for God's sake, kiss her or something. You never know what could happen!"
No, it was highly unlikely that someone could ever fall in love with me.
I got lucky, however. I did end up having a high school boyfriend. He was someone who managed to love me despite knowing how sick I was, someone who made me laugh through my tears, someone who was happy to go along with living one day at a time.
Adulthood turned out to be much more complicated.
The dating life of a cancer survivor can be tortuous. It is often marked by one burning question-
“To tell, or not to tell”. That IS the question.
Do I tell this guy/woman I had cancer? Do I tell him that I can’t guarantee I won’t get it again? Do I tell him I have disfiguring scars, or let him find out for himself? Do I tell him that I may never be able to have children? Do I just let it spill, apologize for my damaged body before it’s discovered, test him to see how he reacts? Or do I let myself fall in love first, hope that he’ll love me in return, and that he’ll be able to get past all that once he really gets to know me?
There were times when I used my cancer history as an excuse to keep someone from getting too close. There were also times when I watched someone physically recoil at the sight of my scars, or when I told them that I had Hodgkin’s. There were times when I wanted to blurt out Jack Nicholson’s line from “A Few Good Men-”
“You can’t Handle the truth!”
It wasn’t just dating. When out with a group of friends, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with everyone else, and sometimes I just couldn’t. I would make some excuse and try to bow out quietly. I didn’t want to have to explain. I didn’t want others to think of me as sick or fragile. I just wanted to be “normal,” but I had no idea how to get there.
When I met my future husband, Rich, I opted for full disclosure. I knew in an instant that he was “the one,” and I told him everything- on the first date. He didn’t blink. He’s STILL not blinking, and thirty-five years have gone by now. They have not been easy years. Rich has seen me through infertility, open heart surgery, mastectomies, lung surgery, and a host of other health issues and hospitalizations all related to the long-term effects of my earlier treatment. Forty-six years after diagnosis, I now have several replacement parts and a slew of new scars. Seen together, they read like a road map of where I’ve been and what I’ve done to survive. How lucky I am that this man continues to believe in me, to love me, “warts and all.” The real question is,
“can I still love myself?”
There are days when I look in the mirror and don’t recognize the girl I once was, and it’s not just that I’m getting older. I don’t remember what it feels like to be “whole.” In spite of all my teenage angst about my numerous flaws and imperfections, I always felt that I was in one piece. I sometimes miss that girl.
For the most part, however, I am proud of my body, of who I am and what it took to get this far in life. As for the scars, I have learned to see them as symbols of courage, as though each one represents a notch in the belt of fortitude and resilience. Some are faded, some are fresh, but each one has its own story, and together they make up me.
The truth is, I do love this broken body. Warts and all.
New York City Marathon, November 2016