Learning to Accept (if Not Love) My Scar
Kari, my new personal trainer, had me down on the mat when, in the middle of a tough set of obliques, my T-shirt rode up and revealed “it.” It was a 16-inch-long scar that runs from below my navel to my breastbone. Kari didn’t hesitate to ask: “What’s up with your scar?”
Although “my scar” — and I do feel proprietary about it — has been a part of me for more than three decades, an answer still doesn’t come easily. My first inclination was to pretend I hadn’t heard the question. Then I briefly considered telling her a flat-out lie: “I was shot in the stomach” (I once knew a guy with a similar etching on his belly that really was caused by a gunshot wound). Finally I settled on the truth: “It’s from a long-ago cancer surgery,” I explained, outing myself as a member of the “cancer club.”
In 1984, after an eight-hour operation to remove cancerous lymph nodes from my abdominal cavity and two weeks in the hospital, I went home with my scar. It’s actually a remarkable wound — sutured with silk, woven with wire, and zipped up with no-rust staples. At the time I was single and 26. For more than 30 years I’ve wrestled with how to come to terms with all that it embodies — and how to talk about it.
At first, when the wound was still red and raw — and so visible, before my chest and belly hair grew back — I didn’t want anyone to see it. Including me. I was embarrassed to take off my shirt in a locker room or at the beach. At home alone, I’d undress in a dark closet to make sure I didn’t catch a glimpse of it. Every so often, I’d step out of the shower and see that rough-hewed line, and it would set off an avalanche of emotion. It wasn’t just the obvious disfigurement. The scar represented the loss of my younger self’s sense of invulnerability, and — no surprise — triggered a fear of death.
In an interview, Dr. Jeffrey Marcus, the chief of pediatric plastic surgery at Duke University, who has treated thousands of patients in his 15-year tenure, told me that we all have very personal responses to disfigurements like scars. “A scar is a physical deformity, it’s a physical difference,” he explained, adding that scars ignite questions of identity because other people “tend to draw conclusions or make assumptions about attractiveness, intelligence, even capability based on something they see.”
I was sure others would use the scar to judge not just my appearance but my sexual prowess, too. Being single presented a wrenching set of dilemmas. What was I supposed to do when going to bed with someone for the first time? Let’s face it: Nothing breaks the mood like announcing: “Hey, I have a really big scar because I had cancer!” After a few awkward test-drives with boyfriend-candidates, I chose to be celibate for a couple of years.
When I rebooted my dating practice I made sure to keep the lights down low — if not off — and sported a tank top in bed. I hoped to pass for shy rather than ashamed. Most of my dates were decent men, or maybe they were myopic, or shy themselves.
One guy who did ask me about the scar didn’t take more than two breaths before saying goodbye. “I just buried my partner who died from cancer. I can’t go down that path again.” The Americans With Disabilities Act may protect people like me from discrimination on the job, but we’re on our own in the bedroom.
By my mid-30s the scar had softened and faded. In that decade, my shame had slouched into shyness, and now I was toddling toward acceptance. I took off my shirt at the beach. I got naked in the bedroom. I actually looked at myself in the mirror. And in my 40s, I got married, scars and all.
What had once been a stark reminder of my illness had become something else altogether: Now it was a testament to my survival. Reading Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” one afternoon, I stopped in recognition when I came upon this line: “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
My scar had become a talisman of sorts, a visual and lasting connection to my own history. As Marcus told me, “Some differences can be positive, too.”
After 12 years of marriage, my husband and I recently separated. I expect I may be re-entering the dating scene before long. But now I’m in a different place.
Sure, I still have some unease about “it” from time to time. But three decades after my surgery, I keep coming back to this realization: My scar is visible proof that I have survived. Without it, I could not be whole. It is, literally, what binds my torso together. Time may heal all wounds — if not all scars — and that’s just fine with me.
(Steven Petrow is the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners: The Definitive Guide to LGBT Life.”)
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.