Leanne Sowul carries physical scars from life’s twists and turns: in her case, cancer inflicted scars on her neck. Why do the things we live through happen to us? Read Leanne’s piece on what her scars mean to her now as a mother and writer.
She is a writer and music teacher living in the Hudson Valley region of New York. She writes historical and literary fiction, and was most recently published in Confrontation literary magazine. In her blog Words From The Sowul, Leanne shares her philosophies of life after cancer and motherhood. Follow her on Twitter @sowulwords.
Wind Patterns Over Chernobyl
There are many kinds of scars. There are inner scars, and outer scars. There are scars we inflicted on ourselves, and those that were inflicted on us, by accident or design. There are scars that cause pain, and those that meld peacefully into our skin. There are scars that mean everything, and scars that mean almost nothing.
I have a scar that is all of those things.
My scar is on my neck. It’s two scars, actually- two parallel lines, marking where the surgeons cut me open four times to remove my thyroid gland, then multiple lymph nodes on both sides, in the attempt to rid me of thyroid cancer when I was a teenager. That’s only the outer scar, though. The inner scar is the four years I spent fighting that cancer instead of living a normal, carefree teenage life. The inner scar symbolizes pre-and-post surgical drugs, days of radioactive isolation, feeling different from all my peers, and endless fights with my (understandably) protective parents.
My scars were inflicted on me by cancer. I don’t know where the cancer came from- God? Past-life karma? Tiny microbes? Wind patterns over Chernobyl after the nuclear explosion when I was a kid? (The last is the only theory with any shred of proof.) But they were also, in a sense, self-inflicted: I agreed to the surgery, and afterward I sometimes dealt with my inner scars in a way that cut even deeper. Toward the end, I also experimented with self-cutting, though thankfully, it was never deep, never embedded in my psyche, and I have no scars from such incidents.
I have felt pain in my scars. When I woke up from surgery, the pain was acute; then, after a few days of hospital-grade painkillers, it simmered down to a dull ache. Now I don’t feel them at all- in fact, there are parts of my upper body that are still numb or re-wired wrong as a result of the surgeries. If you touch me on my shoulder, I feel it behind my ear. My neck is a parlor trick.
What matters most about my scars is this: They used to mean everything about me. They used to be my entire identity: I was “the girl with cancer.” But then I went into remission- hopefully permanently, though you never know- and I was allowed to go on with my life. Like a poisonous relationship I was finally able to shed, it still affects me, but it no longer defines me. I became other things: a high school graduate, a college student, a certified teacher, a live-in girlfriend, a bereaved granddaughter, a homeowner, a wife, a mother, a writer. Over time, I stopped seeing my scars when I looked in the mirror. I’m hardly conscious of them at all; on the rare occasion that someone asks me about them, I have a moment of surprise before I say, “Oh, I had cancer.” Fifteen years is a long time, and there is a lot of truth to the adage that time heals.
But even though they no longer mean everything, my scars will never mean nothing. These days, instead of a mark of pain, punishment, and suffering, my scars tell the world that I experienced those things and survived. I’m no longer a teenager desperate to fit in; now I’m an adult striving to stand out, and I embrace the parts of me that are different. My scars symbolize a past that I can always draw strength and gain perspective from. After fifteen years, I can look at my scars from the inside and out; I can be grateful for my past with cancer, and even for the pain. My scars tell the story of a defining moment in my life, but I still get to write the next chapter.
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