“But who can feel ugly when their heart feels joy.” ~C.S. Lewis
The diagnosis of brain cancer brings with it many things to adorn you with: a closeness to God, a camaraderie with the other patients in the Oncology suite, and the body of Christ in full force. It also gains you the armor and markings of a warrior, though a less impressive looking warrior than any in the history books. Pin-prick IV marks, a nice, recognizable scar (if you’re lucky like me, it means stubborn baby hair regrowth, too), and, a new addition since Monday, a radiation mask.
Radiation for brain cancer is a tricky thing. The goal of radiation is to target and kill the cancerous cells in the tumor with concentrated beams of energy, though hitting any accidental bystander brain cells could have serious consequences. Since my tumor sits within my short term memory, it could make me a spacey, confused individual. It’s okay, Phoebe was always my favorite character on FRIENDS anyways. The radiation mask exists to hold my head in the exact same position every day I receive radiation to ensure they hit the target spot-on. They wet a mesh plastic mask in warm water, and stretch it over your face like elastic. It forms precisely to your skin and slowly dries in place as they run a CT scan to see your brain’s exact position within the mask. I’ve learned (looking at the photos above) that radiation therapy masks for brain cancer make you look a bit monstrous, but at least I only have to take my earrings off for therapy, and don’t have to worry about changing into a hospital gown. The vain, fashion-obsessed side of me breathed a sigh of relief when I found that out.
After the mask was made, my family met with my Nurse Practitioner, Katie, who will manage my case on a more personal level. As the nurse practitioner, she’s stuck discussing the hard stuff with me, the side effects that the doctors don’t bother much with (as they are busy calculating my radiation dosage), but which can make the treatment a lot less stomach-able. We discussed the tiredness that comes with therapy, the potential for radiation burns, which can be worsened by any sun exposure. Fortunately, we both acknowledged that my alabaster skin had given me a plethora of experience in avoiding sun exposure. Combating burns is hardly a foreign concept to me.
Then came what seems to be the most buzzed about side effect: the hair. Radiation causes hair loss at the site of treatment. Coupled with the hair loss from chemotherapy, my hair will likely have jumped the metaphorical ship by the end of the year. Before she even mentioned this, however, Katie commented on my scar. She discussed how good it looked (for a stitched together strip of scalp), and mentioned what she considers one of the toughest parts of hair loss: you lose your right to choose. To a lesser extent, this is the same effect of my surgery scar. It’s not a choice whether or not I let people know what’s going on; everyone knows. The first two weeks after surgery, I worked tirelessly to style it, or cover it with a beanie. I wasn’t embarrassed, but wanted to preserve the normalcy of my family and myself when out in public, to not feel eyes linger on me for just a moment too long before pretending they were actually staring at something else. Not that people stare out of malice; I have done this before myself, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a natural human reaction to wonder and feel concern for someone with a clear sign of sickness or injury.
Perhaps what I struggled most with adapting to was church. Vain though it was, leaving my scar uncovered seemed to lessen the formality and work I put into looking my Sunday best. Aside from that fact, there’s only so much you can do with hairspray and a comb to hide something without looking like you’re from the 1980’s. I feared, though I knew no one gave it a second notice, having my scar so exposed was somehow disrespectful, or distracting from the message. Over time, though, I became used to it. It was a part of me, something God allowed to happen so that through this, I could glorify Him. Why wouldn’t He want me to wear it proudly, so that anyone who sees it may be reminded of the great things He can do through us, of what He can save us from? Remembering that, I nodded in response to Katie, telling her this has always been a public journey for me, and reminded myself this is only to serve His purpose.
In eight weeks, I could look just as I do now, with the exception of a new, spunky short haircut to make my life easier. I could also be bald, with a scalp as red as roses. Neither result matters. True, one may attract more attention and be harder to deal with, but I will wear it as a badge of honor in my fight against cancer and in my fight to bring others to God. Do not be afraid to show your flaws, they show others God accepts and loves us in spite of them. Do not be afraid to show your pain, it shows you were strong enough to endure what God carried you through. God has made you new, “he calls [you] beautiful.” Do not let the enemy tell you that you are otherwise. Your scars, whether visible or invisible to the naked eye, are proof you are fighting for Him.