CancerGuide: Inspirational Patient Stories
I was a junior at the University of California at Berkeley. At the age of twenty, my life had been smooth sailing, seldom interspersed with adversity or difficulty. I was handsome, smart and athletic. I was confident and not concerned much with my appearance. But over a period of a couple of weeks, a few people asked me what was wrong with my nose, a nose I had always remembered to be pretty normal. I hadn't noticed myself, but upon looking at it closely in the mirror, I assumed the bump pushing against my right nostril would just go away. When it didn't, I made an appointment with a doctor who suggested a biopsy.
The pathology report concluded I had a rare fibrosarcoma. Since the biopsy removed the bulk of the tumor, my doctor indicated that outside of having a CT Scan to insure the tumor had been removed, a follow-up procedure would be necessary to excise any remaining tumor cells that may have been present. Given what he said, I somehow felt that even the ensuing surgery would be minor. My assessment of the situation was that I had little to worry about. The follow-up procedure did prove to be minor. With only a few sutures along the wing 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 sensations in my cheek. Doctor visits, a CT Scan and evaluation by the U.C.S.F. Tumor Board confirmed that my previously unthreatening tumor had procreated itself seemingly overnight 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 my first major surgery (third procedure) with a full-thickness 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, the shelf of my eye had been removed and six teeth and part of my hard pallet had been resected. My doctor's only promise to me was that he would make me "streetable" before I left the hospital. Initially I did not understand that saying I would be "streetable" was a nice 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 and comforted 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 received as the "old Terry" and was petrified that someone would even take notice of me as 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, the radiation had begun to shrink the tissue on my face, to me magnifying my deformity. My self-esteem was sinking lower than I thought possible.
Five years later and after twenty some attempts to reconstruct my face, I was still coping with the insecurity. When I went for my last procedure I met a wonderful woman who helped me to see that the bulk of my problem was not my physical appearance, but my emotional insecurity. I realized that surgery would not fix the mental and emotional scars that had become far more disfiguring elements of my person than the appearance of my face ever had.
Thanks to that wonderful person, the woman who helped me to open my eyes to what my real problems were, 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 self. I became a volunteer at the Wellness Community (San Francisco/East Bay Chapter), 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 extremely devastating - something that would take me to the deepest depths of self evaluation - to realize that battle scars are what makes someone interesting; battle scars are what makes someone wise; battle scars are what makes you realize how precious and valuable life really is; battle scars are what prepare you for the inevitable adversity that lies ahead.
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 myself when I meet people. Perhaps they wonder or perhaps they don't. They sure don't seem as curious as they were. I guess that tells you something.
My cancer and disfigurement have 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.
Terry published a book with the same title that is available via Amazon.com or your local bookstore.
This CancerGuide Page By Terry Healey. © Terry Healey
Last Updated: 2001