I should play the devil for a living. There is a lot of devil energy in me. There is devil energy in all of us. For me, its easy and natural and powerful and fun and a release. So here's what happened last Saturday.
Jackie Scully’s body is a jigsaw of scars from her collarbone to her hipbones. A constellation of scars on her obliques, a straight slash from hip to hip, a scar over her right breast, a thick glossy scar on her collarbone, and criss-cross scars over her lower hip and the top of her leg. Jackie sees each scar as a trophy for living through whatever life throws at her.
She says, “Under my clothes, I feel like a bit of a warrior…I feel like I can take on anything.”
Last Christmas Eve, Jackie relaxed at home just outside London with her boyfriend Duncan. Leading up to her favorite time of year Jackie spent months preparing for the holidays: hand-making 200 presents for friends and family, decorating, baking, and shopping. And now she had a few days off from her hectic career in the publishing world. Time, she told herself, to take a breath and focus on her personal life. In hindsight, Jackie says the 32 year old woman sitting by the Christmas tree had lost sight of everything in her life that was important. She also says life didn’t believe she would slow down in the new year.
So life interjected on her behalf.
On Christmas Eve, in the shower, Jackie found a lump in her right breast.
On January 17, her doctor confirmed Jackie had stage 2 breast cancer. The tumor grew rapidly and Jackie was soon diagnosed as stage 3.
After living through major hip reconstruction six years prior, Jackie knew what had to be done if she wanted to come out smiling on the other side of treatment. It would entail listening to her doctors but just as important it entailed changing HOW she lived her life.
She asked herself, “What is it I want my gravestone to say?” In an instant, she transformed her life to make sure life improved despite breast cancer. Following are the steps Jackie has taken since January so she can keep smiling and beat breast cancer.
SEIZE THE DAY
Jackie says until this year, “I worked so hard I had many engagements with friends I missed. I was the one not at the barbeque. I was the one who almost always had an excuse for something. And now I realize there are so many things in life I’ve wanted to do. Simple things like watch tennis at Wimbledon which is just down the road.”
Within weeks of her diagnosis, Jackie wrote the Brighter Life List: an eclectic list of goals. She posted it online rather than tuck it away in a notebook as a way to hold herself accountable. “I’ve got all my friends calling me up and asking me what have you done? And challenging me and I am continuously adding to it.” In 2014 while undergoing chemo and radiation, Jackie ticked 5 of 45 items from the list.
BECOME A LADY OF LEISURE
Jackie and Duncan took a few days away from hospitals and work this summer; one night on vacation they played pool. Jackie says, “It had been so long since I’d played I’d forgotten how to set up the table. I realized then it’s not always about trying to achieve something and ticking something off the list, but kicking off your shoes and having a laugh because after that you’re ready for all the other stuff.”
Before Jackie’s diagnosis, she neglected her leisure time seeing it “as a waste of time.”
She now knows the only way to a happier existence is beginning with herself and only then as she emanates that happiness can she be in the right place to help others. Jackie says, “I allocate a chunk of time every day to reading and to whatever makes me who I am.”
TELL BAD JOKES
On Jackie’s blog, she jokes about taking her shirt off for the oncologist in the morning and her pants off for the fertilization specialist in the afternoon, hair loss, baking for strangers, and the surrealistic situations we find ourselves living through.
She says, “I’ve always used humor when I’m nervous and in a hospital scenario I’d joke around and the nurses would look at me like, “God, are you really going to say that? Humor puts me at ease and it’s like leading by example. If I emanate a bubbly, energetic personality, the people around me actually become that way and then I have people to bounce off when I’m feeling a bit sad.”
FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE
Jackie hadn’t played sports since high school and she surprised everyone, even herself, when she decided to take herself on a run last spring. She ignored the voice that told her she’d rather lay in bed and she ignored her troublesome reconstructed hip; she ran despite the chemo side effects. She decided to treat her body with extra love by running around the park by her house almost everyday. The doctors asked her if she was an athlete. She said nope. But she committed herself to the challenge. Jackie says, “I said, right, I’m training for a 10 K and I did and it’s the BEST decision I’ve ever made.”
Coming through the finish line, not only had she found a new passion but she raised over £2000 ($3300) for breast cancer research. “Running clears my head, gives me real focus for the day, and keeps my weight down and now it will always be a part of my life.”
Her next race: Run To The Beat 10K on September 14th to celebrate the end of active treatment the following day.
Over the last nine months, Jackie says, “It has been such a wonderful, wonderful period for reconnecting with people. I’ve seen people this year I hadn’t seen in 14 years.”
She started a blog to keep friends and family up-to-date on her treatments and daily life with breast cancer. As people read her words, she received overwhelming support: an outpouring of cards, messages, cookies, cakes, flowers, and gifts from friends and strangers.
In turn she reestablished closeness with family and friends strengthening it even further with her Pink Hearts Campaign. Jackie handcrafts and hand-delivers fluffy pink hearts to people who have touched her life, “be it a nurse, a surgeon, a friend.” Each heart is accompanied by a piece of paper with a generic message on where to hang it, what the heart means, and reminding her friend to seize the day. On the back she writes her reflections on her relationship with that person.
Instead of asking friends and family for pledges of money for the race in September, Jackie proposed something else to her friends. She asked for pledges of drinks rather than money. For each pledge from a friend, she will donate her own money to breast cancer research. And instead of having one big party at the end of active treatment, Jackie plans on visiting each friend collecting on their pledge of wine, cocktails, and cups of tea over the next year.
CREATE. CREATE. CREATE
Jackie’s loves to bake. Not only that, she loves to create original baked goods. Through chemo, she lost her taste buds which made everything taste metallic or like cardboard.
She explains, “Chemo day was always a sad day so I went in search of the ultimate ginger chemo cookie. Ginger is really good for nausea. I got people from all over the world to send me recipes for ginger biscuits and I’ve been baking them and testing them out on the ward.” The day of her last chemo treatment, she made a sponge cake covered in 450 little fondant tablets which as she says, “went over so well in the ward.”
GIVE, GIVE, GIVE
Jackie always wanted to take her lifelong love of writing and write a book; now with a new-found calling, she has decided to publish a book about smiling through serious illness. All proceeds go to breast cancer charities. With a passion for breast cancer awareness and fundraising, she says, “I’ve always been supportive of people but now I’m focused on four charities to help raise money, providing blogging strategy, and writing for some others. I’m using my professional skills in a charitable light.” She is also a ‘boobette’ – one of a team of women who visits schools to talk to young women about the importance and methods for breast examinations.
PULL IT TOGETHER aka GET SOME PERSPECTIVE
After diagnosis but before her first chemo treatment, Jackie underwent fertilization treatment. Women in their thirties often lose their chance to bear children because of the effects of chemotherapy on their ovaries.
Her biggest piece of advice for her future son or daughter?
“Think about: Who are the people that are going to stand by you? Who are the people that are going to make you smile? What do you want out of life? Just go out and find it.”
“And to think about your life in terms of “What do you want your gravestone to say?”
She says, “I’ve always hankered after the big things in life, the vacations, the job promotions but what I should have focused on is the smell of homemade bread and the smell of fresh cut grass because this is what my happiest days are made of. Life is about taking in what is beautiful in the simple way and everything else is a bonus. Keeping that in mind is where people find happiness.”
What are your happiest days made of, dear reader?
As always thanks for reading. For more scar stories about people who now look outward and upward, check out my book Who I Am: American Scar Stories
Jacques Lopez, 36
Jacques Lopez is covered in scars. Scars with stories. Which is lucky for me as although he is a man who doesn’t subscribe to outbursts of self-disclosure, whenever I ask about a scar, I learn a little more about him: his experiences, his reactions, how he sees the world. These scars allow me to start conversations and use my natural ability to interrogate…ahem…interview him to satisfy my curiosity.
- Right Eyebrow: 1993. High school student in Bangkok. Jacques threw a punch at the wrong guy. He didn’t know it at the time but the wrong guy was the son of the local mafia kingpin. Jacques got lucky and regained consciousness in an alley, beaten up, bleeding, but escaping the signature mark of this guy: an external gunshot through the cheek.
- Side of Right Eyebrow: 1982. One of his first memories is sliding headfirst down the carpeted stairs in his home in Miami, FL. The chicken pox were so itchy and he knew he shouldn’t pick at them. Alas, there is only so much restraint a 4 year old can display and he now has the scar to prove it on the side of his right eye.
- Under Right Eye: 1994. Bangkok. With only a few Baht in his pocket, Jacques hopped on the cheap bus to head home one morning. He thought the bus stopped but as he stepped off the bus, the bus stuttered, then gunned it through the traffic light. One foot on the bus, the other on the road, Jacques bounced his face off the street and need stitches for the cut.
- Right Middle Finger Knuckle. Early 80’s. C’ote D’Ivoire. Living in west Africa, Jacques’s adventures as a lone boy on his bike left him with many scrapes and bruises but the scar on the knuckle of his middle finger is thanks to messing around with a knife. “My mom had given me a Swiss Army knife which I took outside. Across the street was a huge area of mixed grass and brush and a massive pile of dirt. I used the knife to stab a banana tree and tried to whittle pieces of it. I sliced off the top of my knuckle.”
- Middle Finger Middle Knuckle to Base. Late 80’s. Virginia. “I heard you could make teargas with ammonia and bleach so I mixed those two liquids in a mountain dew bottle. I brought it outside and shook it. Nothing happened. Then I put it down and just touched the bottle cap and BOOM. It exploded.”
- Back of head: 1982, Napa, CA. His first scar. “I was little. I was messing around with a broomstick in the playground by my grandma’s house.” He remembers bleeding from the back of his head but not much more than that. I guess there’s something to be said for faulty early childhood memories.7. Side of Torso: Early 1990’s. Rural Thailand. On a rented motorcycle driving around with friends. At the end of the night as Jacques took a turn on the road the gas caught, the bike went one way and sent Jacques headfirst the other way into a field of tall grass. His first thoughts were: “I’m not dead. Nothing’s broken.” And then he saw his side, one cut bleeding and pretty deep. Back at the hotel, Jacques convinced one of his friends to stitch up the cut with a needle sterilized with a lighter and a piece of linen from the hotel comforter. The carbon from the sterilized needle left black marks on his skin.
- Left Knee: Mid 80’s. West Africa. Of the many invasive, disease ridden insects on earth, many of them live in the humid world of West African countries. Jacques traveled to a number of neighboring countries with his mom, dad, and brother when they lived in in C’ote D’Ivoire. A fly lay eggs on his knee most likely as he slept, burrowing the eggs inside his skin. The most common areas for nesting insects happens in elbow crooks and armpits: soft moist areas of your body. The spot above his knee become tender, red, and increasingly sore. Hot compresses were applied. What broke through his skin? A 1/2 inch larvae. “The whole thing came out. It looked like a fat white leech.”
Did anyone else just gag?
For inspirational portraits and short stories, check out Who I Am: American Scar Stories. You can also get daily mini scar stories from people I come across in daily life. Find these on my Instagram page or the American Scar Stories Facebook page.
And once again, thanks for reading.
Jake Evans, 38
New Brunswick, Canada
Each of Jake’s four noticeable scars appeared after spring adventures. “It seems every spring I get all excited. And then something happens.” I talked to him late winter 2014 and he laughed when he said, “I’ll have more scars after this spring I’m sure.”
Head to Toe….
“The scar on my head has made me realize how close I’ve come to not being here. I don’t take life for granted and I will enjoy it while I’m here. I don’t sweat the small stuff. But then again I’ve always been like that so maybe that’s why I get into trouble.”
“Before I went into surgery, the surgeon told my parents there was an 80% chance I wouldn’t live and if I did live, I’d be paraplegic or brain dead. But the specialists saved my life. I went through 6 hours of surgery and at one point I flat-lined.”
Earlier that day in May 1999, Jake was out in the New Brunswick woods partying with friends on Victoria Day weekend. He ventured off with one of the dogs at the camp and didn’t see the 20 foot drop into an old concrete logging bin: an old type of dam loggers used to guide timber down the river. Jake hit the concrete and he was knocked out cold, his neck broken in two places, and his head looked like “someone pushed in an eggshell with its splits and lines.”
Eventually some of his friends wandered through the woods to find him. They didn’t see Jake but they found the dog whining at the top of the drop-off. They quickly climbed down the rebar lining the dam top to bottom. His friends could see Jake’s brain and his eyeball had fallen out of its socket so one guy wrapped a jacket around Jake’s head. Jake gained momentary consciousness and his instincts kicked in; he freaked out sure someone was attacking him. His friends held him down and Jake passed out again. His buddies carried him, climbing back up the rebar and driving him 30 minutes to the nearest hospital.
The doctor working that night said there was no hope for Jake so sending him to a larger, better equipped hospital for surgery was pointless. Jake’s parents insisted he undergo surgery.
“When I finally woke up, I had a tube in my head, my groin, my hand, my mouth and a trach in my throat so I couldn’t talk but the first thing I saw when I woke was my dad messing around with the tube in my head. I motioned for something to write with. Everyone was so happy I was awake.” Jake took the pen and painstakingly wrote a note to his dad, an accountant, a man he loves but feels has no business being around any kind of machinery. He wrote, “Get the fuck away from my head.” Everyone laughed. Jake was back.
Five years ago, at age 33 and now a realtor, Jake went into the office before heading to Grand Lake to show a house. “I didn’t feel good. The girls at the office told me I looked bad and I should just go up to the hospital but I drove out to Grand Lake to show the house anyway. But once I got there, I cut it short. I felt real bad pain. I felt like I was dying so I raced to the hospital.” Jake made the 77 km (48 mile) drive. Within an hour of reaching the hospital, he was prepped for surgery. “At first they told me I might have to wait but it just so happened a surgeon was there from Toronto so I got the surgery right away. It was my appendix. It almost erupted. I got there just in time.”
In 2002, Jake was pushing logs around at the Mactaquac Head Pond when he slipped and lodged a broken beer bottle in his knee.
Just last spring, Jake rode motocross around McCloud Hill, a peaceful part of New Brunswick’s countryside. He fell the bike and ripped open his ankle. Instead of getting it looked at, Jakes says, “I screwed around on it for a couple hours.” The open wound became a major infection and left him with his fourth noticeable scar. The ankle scar sits a few inches above his mangled toes but that’s another story for another time.
For daily mini scar stories, check out my Instagram account and for a whole book of incredible scar stories and portraits, check out my book: WHO I AM: AMERICAN SCAR STORIES.