I wrote this last night but I waited to post it. I got the official call today; dermatologist was not wrong. I see the surgeon tomorrow. I’ve struggled for the past week oscillating between complete annoyance that I have this stupid facial carcinoma (which sort of rhymes with “My Sharona” leading to other annoyances in my head) and feeling guilty for being annoyed since it’s not a “real” cancer.
The guilt I understand. My dad suffered a prolonged struggle with his cancer and lost his life at forty-eight. My grandmother dissolved in a series of lymphoma induced strokes. Jim’s mom battled breast cancer with courage and grace. I have friends my age battling breast cancer, a beloved teacher battling lung cancer, and I know far too much about the ugliest side of cancer by watching it do its nasty work in the bodies people whose souls I care for deeply. Oh yeah, then there’s my child whose fought for his life since he drew his first breath . . . enormous guilt wave crashing down on me.
I just have a little carcinoma on my face – it’s stupid that I’m even annoyed. . . but I’m still annoyed and feeling guilty to boot. I dealt with this for four days before I slowly realized why I’m so annoyed, and it’s so terribly sad that I feel marginally less guilty. When I was about ten or eleven I began to form a belief about what I “should” look like. I was susceptible to the media from birth and this idealize image only solidified and intensified until I was in my late teens. By the time I was old enough to let it go, this crazy idea that I “should” look like the girls on the covers of Seventeen and Sassy magazine or worse Vogue and Glamour, or even worse on MTV videos, had done serious damage that is far more insidious than any little carcinoma.
I sincerely loathed myself for most of my conscience childhood. I prayed every night from the fourth grade on for my freckles to fade away, and then I felt guilty for asking God for something so selfish. I was a lonely, miserable, and at times suicidal teenager. I believed with all my heart that I must be ugly. I obsessed over every blemish or minor flaw, only to tear apart my skin with sharp objects under a searing light. I walked around half blind to avoid being seen in my glasses. Every little thing was a crisis. I also had this large benign tumor under my chin that grew from the time I was five until it was surgically removed at seventeen. I laid in bed in the dark with toe nail clippers and a Kleenex tissue under my chin, willing myself to cut it out. Then I chastised myself for being too afraid to do it. I lived in a crazy place in my head where outer reality didn’t match my inner truths.
Believing that I was physically ugly was my armor, but it was an armor that literally cut me more than it protected me. If people didn’t like me, didn’t invite me to their parties, or ignored me entirely, then it was them not me. They were superficial and didn’t like me because I was ugly. Believing in my own ugliness not only made me feel like underneath it all I must be lovable, but that I might be an ugly duckling – that I might blossom one day. Ugliness gave me a strange and twisted hope that kept me delusional and absolutely miserable.
As I approach my 39th birthday, I know this all sounds like the crazy talk of a broken child, but twenty-five years ago it was my truth. It was no longer my dogma by adulthood, but it never completely left me. A cut that deep never fully heals. As recently as my early thirties I commented to a makeup artist that,”I guess I have nice cheekbones,” and she laughed out loud and told me, “You have the whole package.” In my mid thirties after my sinus surgery I asked my ENT doctor about the crooked tip of my nose, and he told me, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I fix noses for a living and yours nose is perfect.”
YES! I know that not only am I not ugly but that I’m actually a pretty person, I still have lapses. It’s taken me two decades to stop letting strangers set the standard my own beauty. I don’t want that work undone. I’m not fishing for compliments. I’m just remembering how many years it took me to learn how to accept a compliment.
And that’s where my carcinoma annoyance originates. I finally believe I’m beautiful inside and out, and now there is this thing eating my upper lip like a cancer, because it actually is a cancer . . . but not a bad killer cancer . . . just the kind that causes scars and deformation. My tiny little cancer is a wormhole that pulled me back to familiar but shaky ground.
Were this thing on my back or shoulder or forearm, I wouldn’t be so irritated. But my face and I have been through so much animosity, abuse, and misunderstanding, that this little clump of cells seems like a threat, not to my life, but to my extraordinarily fragile relationship with my self esteem. It annoys me most because it suggests to me that I’m not as confident and self-assured as I’ve led myself to believe in the past twenty years. It makes me wonder where truth and beauty unite and where they unravel. My itsy-bitsy non-threatening cancer is a little black spot on the sunshine of my life and casting me back to the shadows of doubt. Now I’m back to guilt and that annoys me because I’m comparing apples to oranges, and I know better.
I’m not caving to vanity. Rather, I’m grasping the value of acceptance, and the fear of losing it drives my irritation. I don’t feel guilty about treasuring the accord I’ve reached because it took me years to get to a place where I love myself and my face. I don’t want to lose that love or too much of my skin. Also, there’s the simple injustice of this happening to someone who sunburns so badly that she owns five kinds of sunblock, uses them daily, and has spent so little time outdoors that her childhood neighbors thought her parents only had three children instead of four.
No, it’s not going to kill me, but it reminds me of how far I had to come and still have to go on the road to being a truly healthy human being. I can’t entirely forget the pain of my past because those scars run so much deeper than my skin, but at least I understand myself a little bit better. I guess that’s the blessing. . .or is just a game in my mind – Carcinoma! Now I want to watch Reality Bites, because sometimes it just does, and then you put on your big girl pants, go to the surgeon and grow up . . . all over again.