Scars: The Wounds of Warriors & Survivors

Bianca I. Laureano

You’ve survived your treatment and/or therapy after your cervical cancer diagnosis, but something still isn’t the same.

On the most sacred parts of your body—those parts that you have only shared with others on special occasions—there is a tangible marking of your survival and the past several months.

Coping with your scars is part of a process, a process of acceptance, rejuvenation, and triumph.

One thing Tamika & Friends, Inc. seeks to do is provide a space where survivors can find community and support. We know how isolating this diagnosis can be, and we also know that after therapy and treatment there remains still more to process. Instead of reading books and magazines at the doctor’s office (of which we’ve memorized each edition because we have been there so many times in a 1 month span), we are now at home and realizing our body tells a story and the scars are the words. People can now literally read our body. It is up to us to decide what story they read when we allow them to see our story.

It took me a very long time to realize that the scars on my body were part of who I was and what I had struggled and survived. I’d like to share a few techniques that helped me embrace my scars and find pride in sharing them.

  1. Look at yourself in the mirror. I’m not just talking when you want to make sure an item of clothing doesn’t need to be ironed before you wear it, or when you are putting your make up on. I’m talking full-length mirror with no clothing on. I know it can be scary and painful, but this is essential. You must know what you look like and what you may be choosing to hide if you hide your scars. Try not to make a decision based on the fear of yourself.
  2. Take a deep breath. Actually, take several. Close your eyes while you take them. Breathe in through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Say words or sounds if it relaxes you. You can have a mantra going on in your mind if it is helpful (such as “I am worthy,” “There is beauty looking back at me.”). As you breathe, feel your lungs expand as they fill with air. Relax your body. Before you are ready to open your eyes, roll your shoulders back and straighten your back.
  3. When you are ready to open your eyes continue to breath. Remember to breathe. Don’t jump immediately to your scars. Start from the top down. Look at your eyes, see how your hair may be growing back, look at your nose, lips, chin and continue to each part of your body. You may notice one breast is bigger than the other, and that’s normal.
  4. If you are a woman of size, like I am, it’s important to stretch to see all of your body. I move my hands up over my head and stretch them as far as I can. Then I look in the mirror and see how the folds of my body have moved apart. Sometimes I have to move them apart. Touching yourself is another step.
  5. When you are ready to touch your own body, do it gently. I find comfort in lathering my body with my favorite lotion and watching how my body absorbs it in the mirror. Touching your body is extremely important because once you learn to touch yourself again in a loving, affectionate way, one that honors who you are, and then you can receive and give the same type of touch to others. Try not to underestimate the power of human touch and affection in various forms. It is important to and for all of us.
  6. Turn around in the mirror and check yourself out from the back. Relax your bum! We sometimes forget to do this and some of us may not have a realistic impression of what our bodies look like. So remember to relax those muscles too.
  7. If you are comfortable, touch your scars. I’ve touched my scars often when I am by myself and I’ve come to touch my scars in public too. There is a comfort I now find in them. If you are searching for a way to make your scars appear less noticeable with gels or creams, it is important you know where your scars are to properly apply whatever you are using. There’s just no getting around the scars if you are using ointments and must apply them directly to the scars.
  8. Some of us have scars that as we grow, it grows with us or may bring along more scarring. For example, some of my scars have many stretch marks near them as my body has grown or slimmed down. Regardless, the stretch marks are there and they are kind of a packaged deal at this point. One of the things I’ve done that helps me cope with all of the markings is to look at the beauty that may make up my scars. For example, my stretch marks and scars have an iridescent aspect to them. When I put them in a particular light, or in direct sunlight, they reflect back beautiful crystallized colors.
  9. I also watch as my scar moves as I breathe, as I move around, as I put on my clothing or as I speak if I am wearing something that shows some skin. I see how the scar moves with me. It is not its own independent part of my body that I have no control over. It is a part of me. It is with me. I can feel when it is touched, or when it may itch. I am not my scar; the scar is just a part of me. It is important to remember this for as women we sometimes think that the first thing to go is our vanity and that is devastating.
  10. Our scars speak of the roads we have traveled, of the history we bring with us. Our bodies transmit culture and narratives that are rarely revealed. We have in some ways become the gatekeepers of an amazing story of survival and perseverance and we can choose who to share such narratives with. I choose to share my story with as many people as I can. Sometimes you don’t need to say anything; just going to the beach or pool is enough.

Challenges:

For some women another challenge may arise. Your skin may keloid, which is when tissue at the area of a scar may overgrow. If you have noticed that your skin at the scar site is becoming overgrown see your physician for any treatment that is available and to make sure that the keloid will not limit your movement or cause pain.

Discoloration of the skin may also arise for some of us. My scars are either a brighter color than my skin color, but in other areas if the scar is also where I may bend (i.e. my waist). I also have skin that is significantly darker than the rest of my body. I do not know if this is a phenomenon that may only affect some populations (such as women of Color), but there are noticeable and I will admit they made me nervous. For families that do not know how different communities may have a different reaction to scars and skin discoloration, they may too be shocked. My family thinks, even to this day, that my scars and darker skin makes me look “dirty.” Sometimes you’ve just got to accept that you will not change their mind just because you have changed yours.

Framing Your Scars:

You may find yourself at a place where you are in full acceptance of your scars and comfortable sharing them in certain situations, but want something more. I’ve been there too. The something more I wanted was to nurture my creative and artistic aspect of my personality. I thought about all my options: tattoos, intentional and consensual branding, henna, and piercings. There are many more options, but those were the ones I knew I could find a good and safe referral for as well as something affordable. Since my decision I’ve chosen tattoos.

Now, if you are someone experiencing keloid’s, tattooing is something to discuss with your physician as the tattooed area may keloid as well. I know may people, survivors, who have framed their scars with a tattoo on various parts of their body. I also know many partners of survivors who have also chosen to get “inked” with their partner in solidarity and support. Here are some tips and things to think about when considering this option:

  1. Think very carefully about why you want a tattoo and where you want it as these are permanent. What are some expectations that you have of the tattoo representing or fulfilling for you? How do you feel about someone you may not know well seeing a part of your body? How much are you willing to spend? How big do you want your image? What colors would you want to have? Do you want your tattoo to be visible? Remember that tattoos cannot always be placed on top of a scar, mole or skin tag. There are many tattoo artists who will NOT tattoo on top of any of these and will work around the scar.
  2. Think about it some more. There are parts of our body that are not the best places to have a tattoo placed because as we age that skin may change its texture and elasticity, thus the tattoo will not look the same way it did when you first got it placed. As a general rule of thumb, you may have to get your tattoo touched up once every several years if you want to keep it looking vibrant.
  3. Research and ask for referrals. Some of the best tattoo artists are those whose work you have seen firsthand. If you have friends and/or family members who have tattoos that look well done ask them about the artist. In general, artists love when people come to them based on word of mouth, or because you saw some of their work that you admired.
  4. Shop around for the right tattoo artist for you. If you prefer a female tattoo artist be honest about that. It is okay to have a preference based on your level of comfort. Visit the shop you plan on going to receive your tattoo. If you do not get a good “vibe” from the place, maybe it’s not the place for you to go right now. There are also a few things to look out for when you visit. These include:
    1. Cleanliness. Many tattoo shops have lots of visual images and artwork in their locations, but look around to make sure you believe this is a clean enough environment for you to disrobe. Is the trash overflowing from the bin? Are there dust or hair balls on the floor or in the corners? Are the windows and display cases clean? (Many tattoo shops may also perform piercings so they may showcase their jewelry). Check out the bathroom as well.
    2. Space. How large is the space? If you plan to disrobe a certain part of your body will there be some privacy? If you plan to bring someone with you for support join you in your space? Is there room for them to wait for you outside the tattooing area? Is there a sitting/waiting room?
    3. Artists. Talk with an artist and see if this is someone you would like to work with. You may ask to see their portfolio if they were not a referral. Ask about how many years they have been tattooing, what they prefer to tattoo (i.e. portraits, black and white, color images, abstract, free form, etc.). Ask about the process and how long they think you may be at the shop. If you are getting a large tattoo you may have more than one sitting if you add color depending on the artist. Ask about pricing. Some artist charge an hourly rate, others charge a flat rate. It’s important you understand what you will be charged and what forms of payment they will accept.
    4. Laws. It is against the law for anyone under 18 years of age to get a tattoo, someone who is intoxicated and/or under the influence of narcotics (this includes marijuana). The law requires that you sign a release/consent form before your tattoo, that new sterilized needles must be used for every new customer, and that aftercare instructions be provided. It is imperative your artist uses sterile equipment because HIV and Hepatitis can be transmitted if instruments are unsanitary. Also, make sure the ink that is used is poured out of a larger container into a smaller one as infections can be transmitted through the ink as well. Finally, make sure your artist wears latex gloves.
    5. Health. Ask about after care instructions specifically. You will need to purchase mild soap and have some fragrance free lotion available. If you are still taking medications, ask your doctor if they will interfere with the experience. If you ask, they may allow you to watch as another person gets tattooed so you know what to expect. If you get a tattoo in a particular part of your body it may take a while to heal, so be prepared for some level of discomfort and possibly to wear clothing that does not rub against it while it heals.
  5. Your Ink Day. You may have to shave, so be prepared. Some folks may be embarrassed if their tattoo artist shaves them, but it’s a normal part of the process. Make sure you have the money you expect to pay for your tattoo with you or on a credit card. One of the best ways to thank your tattoo artist is with a tip. Tips can usually be as much as you want or 20% of the total, so add that into your total expense. Depending on where your tattoo will be, think carefully about what you will wear. If you are going to have a tattoo on your hip, think about wearing cotton fabric, elastic waist, high leg/low riding panties and a comfortable shirt. This way you can easily and comfortably remove your clothing as well as redress. If you are getting a tattoo on your back or chest, you may want to consider alternatives to the usual bra you wear. Think about brining a jacket or button up shirt if you have a tattoo on your back and do not want to expose your breasts. You can undress and wear the jacket/button up backwards to cover your chest and torso. Relax.
  6. Will it hurt? I have a high threshold for pain, but my tattoos did hurt, some more than others. There will be blood, so be prepared. You will experience scabbing during the healing process so don’t pick at the scab! You may experience pain after the tattoo while it heals. Don’t worry about asking your tattoo artist to give you a break if you need one.
  7. Be careful, you might get hooked! I’ve heard this said a lot by folks and for many it is true. For some, one tattoo is enough, for others, they may want a tattoo for each year they survived. Either way, enjoy your new tattoo and the reframing of your scar.

Bianca I. Laureano is a sex positive educator, activist, and consultant. She was Tamika & Friends Inc., Director of Sexual Health from 2005-2007. She lives in New York City and can be reached at www.biancalaureano.com