Cancer left him with scars everyone could see. But the worst ones were invisible.
At the age of 20, my life had been smooth sailing, seldom interrupted with adversity or difficulty. I was a junior at the University of California at Berkeley. I was confident, smart and athletic.
Though I wasn’t overly concerned with my appearance, I also knew I was handsome. But during my junior year, over a period of a couple of weeks, several people asked me what was wrong with my nose. I finally took notice of the bump pushing against my right nostril, but it didn’t seem like a big deal. I just assumed it would go away. When it didn’t, I made an appointment with a doctor who suggested a biopsy.
It turned out that I had a tumor — a rare fibrosarcoma. Although the bulk of it had been removed during the biopsy, my doctor said I’d need a follow-up surgery to excise any remaining tumor cells. I wasn’t alarmed; my assessment of the situation was that I had little to worry about. The procedure proved to be minor. With only a few sutures alongside of my nose and a few more inside my pallet, I returned to classes looking like I had been in a fight with someone, not something.
But six months later, I discovered a new lump rising from the lower portion of my right nostril. Then I began to feel tingling in my cheek. Visits to numerous specialists confirmed that my previously unthreatening tumor had procreated itself into a horrific, life-threatening and potentially disfiguring malignancy. My doctor informed me that I could lose half my nose, half my upper lip and possibly my right eye, but that saving my life was his main concern. I suppose I was too young to contemplate dying, but the realization that I could be disfigured was devastating.
I awoke from the first surgery with a skin graft attached to my face from the skin and fat of my shoulder and chest. Half my nose and upper lip was gone, the muscle and bone from my right cheek had been excised and the shelf of my eye, six teeth and part of my hard palate had been removed. My doctor’s only promise to me was that he would make me “streetable” before I left the hospital. I did not understand at the time that that was his way of preparing me for a life of disfigurement.
When I was released from the hospital, I noticed adults staring at me and children pointing and sometimes laughing at me. I realized that my hospital room had protected me. Outside of it, I was vulnerable and exposed.
How was I going to face the world? I cared what other people thought of me. I relished the admiring looks I had received as the “old Terry” and was petrified of the reaction I’d get to the “new Terry.”
Over the next few months, I encountered many old friends and acquaintances. Their sometimes inadvertently negative reactions and comments left an indelible mark on me. On top of what people were saying, radiation treatments had begun to shrink the tissue on my face, magnifying my deformity. My self-esteem sank lower than I thought possible. I found myself constantly seeking reassurance from people – did my looks bother them? What did they see? Did they like me? How could they like me?
Five years later and after 20 attempts to reconstruct my face, I was still coping with the insecurity.
When I went in for my last reconstructive procedure, I met a woman who was also being treated at the hospital. We began dating. One day, after listening to me ask her, for the umpteenth time, how she felt about my looks, she ripped into me. The bulk of my problem, she informed me, was not my physical appearance, but my emotional insecurity. Her honesty helped me to realize that surgery would not fix the mental and emotional scars that had become far more disfiguring elements than the appearance of my face ever had.
I began to examine myself from the inside out. The support of family and friends, prayer and the realization that my scars were deeper on the inside than the outside all combined to strengthen my spirit and belief in my self. I became a volunteer at the Wellness Community, a cancer support organization that offers hope and support for patients and their families.
Helping others seemed to be the greatest form of therapy. I began to feel better about myself as I realized that I could bring tremendous inspiration and hope to those coping with cancer. Over time, the pain I felt from being an outcast subsided.
Perhaps I will always be an outcast, but it’s not pain I feel any more. In a strange way, I am thankful for who I am today – much stronger and wiser than I was before cancer.
We all struggle with insecurities in one form or another. For me it took something devastating – something that would take me to the depths of self evaluation – to realize that battle scars are what make people interesting; battle scars are what make people wise; battle scars are what make people realize how precious and valuable life really is; battle scars are what prepare people for the inevitable adversity that lies ahead. My cancer and disfigurement taught me one of life’s most important lessons: It is our internal spirit and not our external appearance that makes up the human soul.
Fifteen years later, I remain free of cancer. I’ve accomplished a lot personally and professionally. Married to an extraordinary and supportive woman, I am truly content with myself. I don’t cower around others or hold my head down any more. In fact, I don’t even think to mention what happened to me when I meet people. Perhaps they wonder or perhaps they don’t. They sure don’t seem as curious as they used to. I guess that tells you something.
Terry Healey is a marketing consultant who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has also written a book about his struggle with cancer and disfigurement called At Face Value: My Struggle With A Disfiguring Cancer that was released in July 2001 and is available via his web site at http://www.at-face-value.com or through traditional book retailers and e-tailers. You can also contact the author via email at email@example.com.