I’ve never been in a gang. I wasn’t in a sorority in college. My high school was too small to have a debate club, or a chess club or any clubs at all. When I was in 6th grade I joined the girl scouts … but that was only because if I did, I could walk to the meetings once a week and Bryan Ellis’s would hold my hand the whole way. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of any official organization. In fact, I’ve often maintained this was why I used to smoke – because smoking instantly gave you entrance into The Club. If you’re a smoker – or ever were – you know what I mean about The Club. It doesn’t matter how incredibly different you are from another smoker, if you both eat nicotine, then you are alike. You are the same. You both carry “the goods” – matches, a lighter, mints or gum. You both sit in the same section at restaurants and you always – ALWAYS – share. Smokers understand smokers.
In the years since I gave up smoking, I’ve occasionally missed this feeling. People ask me if it was hard to quit – it wasn’t. They ask me if I miss it – I do. But it’s not the nicotine I miss; it’s the feeling of being in a club. Of having the insider’s knowledge of something. Of connecting with a stranger for no reason other than you know .. you both know.
A few months ago I was teaching a course to a room full of business people. They were a great group with lots of questions and input and we talked about nearly every topic under the sun. We talked about relationships, conflict, time management, self-awareness, goal setting, differences between men and women, team dynamics and more. They shared stories. I shared stories. They asked questions. I gave answers. They asked more questions. I opened the floor. They answered each others’ questions and then asked more. They never quit digging and searching. Basically, it was an awesome class.
Usually after a class or a meeting that I’m involved in people like to come up and talk to me. They want clarification or connection. They want to share some more stories or ask some more questions or just say how much they enjoyed class. This is pretty awesome, let me tell you. It’s sort of like being a rock star – but without the sex and drugs and well, I guess without the rock and roll too. I’m just saying in those moments even if you didn’t have a strong self-image, you’d feel pretty great about yourself.
Of course, the secret is that it really ISN’T me they are complimenting … it isn’t so much that I’ve done something … it’s that they’ve realized something. They’ve connected to a truth in a new way. They’ve learned something about themselves that is meaningful. They attribute this awakening to me. But really, they are the ones who have done the heavy lifting. Still, it’s nice. Nice to hear people say they’ve realized something new. And I get a real charge out of those moments.
And it was about this time…. after a few people had gathered around and a few others had said what they wanted then left that I saw one of the women from the group approaching. I could tell from her walk and the way she was carrying herself that she was going to join the group gathered around. I assumed she wanted to say something about the class. I figured she wanted to ask a question or share her expertise.
I was wrong.
Without saying one word this woman approached me
broke the circle around me
pointed to a place on my chest near my right shoulder and at the same time yanked down the collar of her shirt to reveal the same place on her chest….
and showed me her scar from a long-gone port-a-cath.
The port. The one part of my cancer treatment I truly hated. Hated everything it stood for. Hated how it felt. The alien-nipple in my chest. The doorbell left behind. The hard plastic rock in my skin. I hated every time I rode in the car as a passenger because of that port and the exact placement of it directly beneath my seatbelt. I hated the way it stuck out and could be seen from across the room. Hated the fact that when curled up in bed, and when The Hub’s would wrap his arms around me in the most natural way, his fingers would fall directly on that blasted port. There was no happier day then the day I got my port out. It was there to save my veins during chemo. It about cost me my sanity. There were two surgeries involving the port. One to put it in. Another to take it out. So it is not surprising to me that that port has left a big fat scar.
I was in a cute little store near my house not too long after that class. As I was leaning over a jewelry case the woman behind the counter asked me if she could show me anything thing. I said no thank you. She lingered anyway. It took her another 5 minutes to work up the courage to say, “Is that a mediport scar there?” I looked up to see her pointing to my chest. And touching her own.
When renting a car in Boston this summer the clerk who tried to sell me 5,000 dollars worth of insurance and pre-paid gas tapped her chest in the same place my port scar is and said almost too matter of factly, “Was it breast?” When I look puzzled she said, “Your scar,” and pointed to my chest. Oh that. “No,” I said. “It wasn’t a breast.” She didn’t laugh. “Um, it was another cancer.” I said. I signed my agreement, refused the insurance – all three times - and left.
We, as humans, have a need to connect – to belong – to join. And as much as I’ve longed to be a part of something bigger than myself at times, as much as I long for that feeling I used to have when I smoked … of connecting with others over a similar experience. …of recognizing a stranger….of being one in a group, every time I’ve had a port connection all I can think of is this is not a club I wanted to be a part of.
And the hazing capital “S” Sucked.
I want to be all like, Hey wow, we’re part of the same group! But the truth is when this recognition and forced connection happens I bristle. Each time I curse the neckline I’m wearing for exposing my scar. Instead of connecting, I want to make up a story about my scar that has nothing to do with cancer. I want to pretend to not know what they were talking about. Want to say it is from a gardening accident or a drinking game gone awry. Anything other than what it is. “Oh this? It’s nothing. Just a little nick from a shiv I took in the shoulder while in the pen.” Every time instead of feeling like I belong, I feel ashamed. Called out. Exposed.
After the closing ceremonies for the 3 Day in Seattle, a darling woman approached me and we hugged and began talking about the weekend. I rarely speak of my own cancer experience when I’m on event. The 3 Day is about the walkers. It’s about the survivors. It’s not about me and truly, my experience with cancer almost never comes up. So as I was talking to this walker after closing it surprised me when she said very directly, “You’re a cancer survivor.” I quickly went back through our conversation and the weekend. Did I already tell her about my cancer? Was she near when I was telling someone else? How is it she knows? And just when I was going to ask her I realized I had on a v-neck top. And, of course, the port scar had given me away once again. And I don’t know why but this time I’d had it. I’d just had it and I so instead of just saying, “Yes, I am!” I instead said, “Oh that blasted port scar.” and I clenched my jaw and made fist and sort of slapped at the scar and shook my head. And that’s when she reached up and grabbed my fisted hand that still lay on top of my scar and pulled it away and then very softly placed her other hand directly on that pink, wrinkled skin and said,
“I’m an oncology nurse.” She gently patted my chest, “And it’s your badge of courage, angel.”
I will always love my oncology nurses. I love them for giving me ativan and blankets and Kleenexes and prescriptions and numbing cream and cups full of ice. I love them for giving me handouts and instructions and IV fluids. I love them, in spite of it all, for giving me chemo. But it wasn’t until this particular nurse tenderly patted my scar and called me angel that I realized they give so much more than all of that. They give hope. And it is in their blood. Just like their chemo was in mine.
I still hate my scar. And when recognized and called out, I still cringe. But I now have hope that one day I’ll see it differently.
And hope is a good thing.