Scars Of A Survivor: A Young Women's Story Of Her Battle With Breast Cancer
As I sat in my dear friend Chrisanthi's bedroom, just twenty-seven days after she had a double mastectomy with reconstructive surgery, she asked me if I wanted to see her scars. I was hesitant. I was nervous of what I would see, yet a part of me also felt protective; I wanted to protect her secret. I was overcome with emotion and admiration, humbled that she was proud to share such a defining part of her story with me.
As she ran her fingers over, stitch by stitch, the ridges that sealed the 4.5 inch horizontal incisions tattooing each breast, I thought, those are the most beautiful scars I have ever seen.
I have always been drawn to scars. I am intrigued by the mystery of the secrets they hold: the personal stories behind them. Physical or emotional, scars have a life of their own. They begin as a wound, red and raw, turning darker as they heel, scabbing and peeling as they let go of the dead skin, no longer needed to survive.
With age, they become smoother to the touch, faded, less visible from the outside, yet underneath, they are the witness with a story to tell. The proof of life -- existence. Some people will see the scar and think of the initial wound. When I see a scar, I see a testament of healing.
Like most twenty-somethings, Chrisanthi was filled with hope, optimism and promise of what her future held, enjoying her independence as a single, working woman in New York City.
Athletic, and healthy, Chrisanthi was on vacation, getting dressed to go for a run. Feeling a tightness in her chest as she put on her sports bra, pulling it down, she noticed a small, hard, lump that felt as if it was attached to the tissue inside her breast. In tune with her body, she knew something didn't feel right.
Assuring herself it was probably nothing, she enjoyed the rest of her trip and made an appointment to see a doctor when she returned. Without wanting to worry her mother, she kept it to herself and went alone to have a breast exam. She could do this by herself. There was no reason to worry. She was young, healthy and unafraid. She was invincible. Whatever the outcome, she would deal with it. Everything would be okay.
Challenged & Empowered
When the doctor said there was cause for concern, she then told her mother. Together, they went for a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy. But Chrisanthi knew before she received the results. She knew what her body was telling her. Very matter-of-factly, she turned to her mother and said, I know I have breast cancer.
The next morning, at 27-years-young, she received confirmation of the six letter word that would change her life forever.
Over the next four years, Chrisanthi would have two lumpectomies, 8 chemo treatments and 31 sessions of radiation. She would have nausea, weakness, aching bones, itchy skin, hot flashes, night sweats and weight gain. She would be told the cancer was gone. She would meet a man and fall in love. She would be cancer-free for almost three years. She would grow her hair, get into shape and fall in love with her body all over again. She had strength. She had won.
Fear, Sadness & Anger
She couldn't believe it. Not again, she thought. All that work for nothing. I can't go through it again. I'm older now. I want children. What if… no, don't think like that. How am I going to tell my mom?
She was diagnosed with cancer in her other breast. Just as the last four years had continued, so would this year…she moved into a new apartment with her boyfriend, discussed marriage and starting a family. She would have two more lumpectomies, another 26 sessions of radiation. Weakness. Aching bones. Itchy skin. Hot flashes. Night sweats. Weight gain. But this cancer was stubborn. Would yet another round of chemo or radiation be enough to stop it in its tracks? Or was the dreaded option to have a double mastectomy the answer? "Your breasts tried to kill you, not once, but twice," said one oncologist.
Continually looking over her shoulder through life, wondering if she would ever find peace from the villain, she knew she was ready to take that difficult step into her future. She had no idea where her feet would land, but she had to be the master of her own life. She had to choose her own path.
Submission & Faith
Chrisanthi yearned for her future, as a healthy wife and mother. By deciding to have the surgery, she was choosing happiness. With her faith and family's love, she believed that not only was she strong enough to get through the procedure, but they instilled in her the self-confidence to accept and to love her body in all forms.
Relief, Strength & Healing
Nearly a month post-surgery, we talked about where she goes from here. She says she feels a relief from the anxiety of awaiting the unknown. Her fear and apprehension were always far worse than the actual challenges. Now she is focused on the healing. Not of the physical scars, but the emotional ones. These too, are still raw and fresh and need time to fade. But she believes that to be the last step in her recovery. With this chapter coming to a close, she knows that the personal lessons she has learned have positioned her for the next chapter with a passion she wouldn't have otherwise known.
We are all better for walking through the storm, rather than around it. We are then given a true perspective of what it really means to be alive. To be able to have experienced life's challenges... the bleeding, the bruising...and to still survive, makes us able to experience the highs with a greater intensity and appreciation. Never having asked, Why me?, Chrisanthi is a testament to this.
As the author, Haruki Murakami once wrote, "Once the storm is over, you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won't even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain, when you come out of the storm, you won't be the same person who walked in. That's what the storm is all about."
What makes a woman beautiful?
From teenagers to adults, as women, we tend to be the most critical of ourselves when it comes to our own physical appearances. We have all stood in front of the mirror studying different parts of our bodies, wondering if we are 'beautiful.'
Was my stomach flat enough, or my thighs skinny enough? Maybe my nose could be a little narrower here or straighter there? Were my boobs too big or too small? Who is this "Judge of Beauty" that so many of us look to for answers in the mirror? Can beauty really be defined from the outside? Surely, it cannot be defined by any societal standard or any one person.
But I asked Chrisanthi what made her feel sexiest. I wanted to know when she felt the most like a woman. She thought about it for a few moments and looked down at her chest in her new special bra and then at her purple workout pants and said, (paraphrased)
"When I am loved. When I am living a life where I am true to myself, unswayed by other's opinions. Getting through life's obstacles with grace." She continued, "Physical strength is empowering. But most importantly I don't let the worries take over. I try and live in the present. Because happiness is sexy. And it's my choice to be happy."
Two years ago, today, I did the Susan B. Koman, Race for the Cure, with Chrisanthi and her mom. Surrounded by women of all ages, I was blown away by the thousands of women who have been touched by that same villain. But I was overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounded me. Every single woman was beautiful, radiating strength and hope and, most importantly, positivity. It was contagious.
Today, as I looked at myself in the mirror, I noticed the small crow's feet around my eyes and the beginnings of lines around my mouth. On most days, I would sigh and think, getting older sucks… But not today. Today I looked and smiled knowing that those lines had a story to tell. Those were the lines of a thousand laughs. Each tied to a memory. Like Chrisanthi said, happiness is sexy.
There is the old children's book, "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes." It's a true story of a girl who lived in Hiroshima at the time of the atomic bomb. She developed leukemia from the radiation, spending her days in a nursing home making origami cranes. She believed in the Japanese legend that one who created a thousand cranes would be granted one wish and cured by the gods. Her wish was to live.
As I walked into Chrisanthi's apartment this morning, I sat next to her as she folded her 858th crane. I asked her what she wished for. I knew she didn't need to wish to live; she was living.
As we flipped through the different colors, patterns and shapes that adorned the beautiful origami paper, I realized that each crane was representative of a woman. She said, "I wish and hope that women can be accepting of themselves." In whatever size or shape they come in, she hopes that women will gain confidence and fulfillment from the inside-out, to be comfortable in their own skin.
She said, "These scars won't define me.'"
They don't define her, but they are physical proof of her strength and spirit. Like I have always believed, scars have a life of their own, a rich history and are sexy. And Chrisanthi, is the sexiest woman I know.
Photo credit: Getty Images