When the doctors first told me about the details of my surgery for my sarcoma of the tongue, I couldn't have imagined how much the surgical incisions would cause the injured tissues to swell or that the graft site on my left arm would end up looking like something out of a bad Halloween horror story.
In order to remove the sarcoma, doctors had to perform a full neck dissection and a resection of the floor of my mouth and part of my tongue. Then they rebuilt these parts with skin grafts from my left thigh and my arm.
Life after sarcoma surgery
The first time I saw my arm unwrapped, I was appalled. There was this huge swollen slab of me attached to my forearm, and it looked like it was either going to fall off or explode. I was actually afraid of my arm. I didn't want to look at it or have anything to do with it. It bothered me, was the embodiment of nightmares, and made me feel like a freak.
Over the next few months, my arm started to heal. Those initial impressions, though, proved to be lasting. I still didn't want to acknowledge that a part of my body was not as it should be. I was OK with the site on my thigh from which the doctors pulled the skin graft. I was OK with the scars and inflammation in my neck and jaw. I could see how everything was healing the way it should. I just couldn't accept this one part of the surgery -- the dent that was the result of various tissues, a section of vein and a section of artery that was taken out of my arm and the skin layer that covered the space left behind.
I spent a lot of time talking with Erin Buck, Ph.D., a behavioral psychologist in MD Anderson's Body Image Therapy Service, who helped me come to terms with all of the changes that all of my cancer treatments had left behind as marks on my body. In time, I came to accept my left arm and to actually take pride in how well and completely it had healed.
No longer hiding
These days, I no longer feel a need to cover it with long sleeves, carefully draped shawls, or elbow length fingerless gloves. I can get about the business of being the wonderful and beautiful unique person that I am.
I have a few very visible scars on my body. I see no reason to go out of my way to hide them or to display them. They are a part of me, as much as my hair color or my feet. My arm went from being a nightmare to being just another interesting thing.
I tell those curious people who ask about my left arm what happened, but I also tell them that I am proud of my arm. Part of my arm is now part of my tongue, and keeps me able to talk and eat. And part of my leg is now really part of my arm. Life is full of surprises.
That's what part of loving yourself after dealing with cancer is about -- finding the surprises, the good things in everyday life -- and celebrating those changes, differences and remarkable miracles.
For more information about Love Your Body Day or the Body Image Therapy Program, call 713-563-8032.