I wrote this piece to submit to The Sun magazine’s Reader’s Write, published this month here. Their loss is your gain!
When my daughter was five, she had appendicitis. This was the first time doctors cut into her skin. Because her surgery was done with a camera, laparoscopically, she received four tiny half-inch long scars, and a slightly longer scar just below her belly button.
She was feeling so good by the fourth day in the hospital that she wouldn’t stay in the bed any longer. When we returned home, and the bandages came off, she reluctantly looked down to see the scar around her belly button, red and raised and angry. Tears filled her eyes and her bottom lip quivered.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My cute little belly button—it’ll never be the same,” she said.
My first instinct was to smile, because the way her belly button looked was so minor. It wasn’t too long ago that a five year old with appendicitis would have died. But I didn’t smile because I also wanted to cry with her. She was right. Her smooth, plump, perfect, little belly would never be the same. Surgery saves lives, but it also has a cost.
Doctors have cut into my skin for twelve different procedures: appendectomy, Mohs surgery, lumpectomy, sentinel node biopsy, bilateral mastectomy, port placement, bilateral latissimus flap breast reconstruction, implant replacement, nipple reconstruction by skin graft, port removal, bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, and cholecystectomy. After each surgery I watched, amazed, as skin that had once been cut by a surgeon’s scalpel knitted itself back together.
My back was sliced open so that my surgeon could free my latissimus dorsi muscles to be used to form breast mounds. I now have two scars each as long as the span between my index finger and my pinky, one across each side of my back. In the front, my breast mounds are marked by oblong, football-shaped scars, where that skin and muscle from my back was tunneled underneath the skin along my armpits and brought to the front, through two more cuts that were made along my mastectomy scars. I’m thrilled that surgery has advanced so that I was able to have reconstruction. They really look like breasts.
But at first it felt like I was wearing a bra that was too tight. I even reached around a couple of times to unhook it before I remembered that I wasn’t actually wearing a bra. Now, after six years, my skin doesn’t feel tight anymore. I don’t feel much of anything. Imagine a piece of elastic stretching from the bottom of my ribs to just under my armpits, all around my body, like a 1970’s tube top. Underneath the elastic, I can feel some pressure, but nothing else. Skin is supposed to provide feedback when it is touched. But wherever there is a scar, I can’t feel anything. There is a disconnect between what I see (hot soup just spilled onto my chest) and what I feel (nothing).
Think about how good it feels—how satisfied you are—when your back itches and someone else scratches your back thoroughly. Or think about the comforting feeling of snuggling naked, close to someone, twined together, breasts snuggled into his chest hair? I won’t ever feel either of those things again.
I’m happy to be alive, happy that my skin has healed. I’m happy that, according to the best doctor’s best guess, the cells that went haywire are gone. But I can’t feel a vast area of my body when it is touched. That’s a loss, and I’ve had to grieve it just as you grieve any loss.
So when my daughter cried because her cute little belly button would never be the same, I just held her, and cried with her, because I knew exactly how she felt. Surgery saved our lives, but we will never be the same.