On scars

Colin, my tumour, was somewhat middle-aged. He’d been growing inside me for ten years or more. The living must have been good, because he was a big fella. So big, in fact, that laparoscopic surgery was not an option for me. No, I’d have to have the classic, big cut approach. This sounded daunting, to say the least.

I could barely ask the surgeon any questions at this stage. I was in shock, after all. But I did manage to ask what the orientation of the incision would be. He confirmed it would be vertical and about 5 to 6 inches long, straight down the middle of my abdomen.

When I got home I did two things. The first thing I did was Google for images of what my scar might look like. This was inevitable, but not helpful. If you’ve done the same thing, then you’re probably shocked by what you find. It sent me into quite a spin. The results of surgery, I thought, would be a permanently disfigured abdomen.

I tried to console myself. I might not be old, but my bikini days are definitely over. I needed to get over my vanity and concentrate on saving my life.

The next thing I did was ring my friend M. She happens to be a Professor in surgical research at UCL. M was amazing in helping me understand what everything meant. She listened when I told her there’d be no minimally invasive surgery for me. ‘Well,’ she said ‘to be honest if I was in your situation I think I’d prefer an open procedure. That way the surgeon can get in, have a good look around and clean everything up properly. I think, given the size of your tumour, it’s going to give you by far the best outcome’.

M then confirmed what I already knew thanks to Mr Google: an open procedure meant a much longer healing process and more pain. But what she was telling me was short-term pain meant long-term gain and my best chance. That made sense to me.

That’s not to say that laparoscopic procedures aren’t good. It really does depend on your circumstances. If you have a small tumour then you’re much better off getting it out laparoscopically. But given Colin’s girth, the surgeon would have to chop him to bits to get him out of the tiny incisions that you have with a laparoscopic procedure. That increases the risk that some cancer cells may escape. So the surgeon was being cautious.

(Understand the difference between a laparoscopic scar and the scar from an open procedure here.)

I remember grieving for my scar-free stomach. It had already been through so much having been stretched out of shape during pregnancy. But now the poor thing would be cut through and sewn back together. I knew it had to be done. I was really, really grateful that something could be done. I told myself not to be silly and vain. But still I cried when I thought about what the surgeon was going to do to me.

Don’t let anyone tell you not to grieve if that’s how you feel. This is your body and your cancer and however you’re coping with it and whatever you’re feeling is okay.

Surgery is an invasion of your body and it is an emotional issue. By acknowledging that it’s okay to grieve, be sad or scared, you prepare yourself for what’s to come.

The good news I have to report is that the scar was not as scary afterwards as I’d expected – nothing like I’d feared, in fact. It was actually beautifully stitched (thank you so much Mr Surgeon and Ms Registrar!). In the following months it shrank and paled and now, less than a year later, it’s just another silver line on my body. I still have mixed feelings about it. I have to confess that I find it embarrassing and sometimes I get upset, but as time passes I’m getting used to it and it really isn’t that bad.

While you may be just grateful to be alive and prepared to put up with whatever has to be done to keep you alive, be prepared to acknowledge and grieve for what you have lost and the change in your body.

For those of us with colon cancer it can be hard. We can’t see where they’ve chopped a big lump out of us in the way that breast cancer survivors can. But even though it’s hidden, we’re perfectly entitled to be upset that something that was once there isn’t any more. Admitting helps with healing.

Not everyone heals as well as I have. What stands in my favour is my relatively young age (49 at diagnosis) which means that my skin still heals fairly well. Many colon cancers occur in older people whose skin doesn’t heal as well or as quickly and isn’t as elastic. But there are some things you can do to increase the chances of your scar looking better. Find out about this in my next post!

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