The scar from breast cancer surgery was embarrassing


Mark Williams said he was embarrassed to take off his shirt.
Mark Williams

  • I had surgery when I was 8 years old, which left me with a scar on my chest and I was self-conscious.
  • As an adult, I struggled in the locker room at the gym and couldn’t take my shirt off during sex.
  • But a man I met at a bar one night taught me that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my scars.

As an 8-year-old with leukemia, I faced many painful moments, including a spinal tap and hair loss. Knowing that all procedures and side effects were temporary helped me deal with the pain.

But when I needed surgery, it left a scar on my chest. I was grateful that her life was saved, but I struggled to bear the everlasting reminder of my illness.

For years, I was embarrassed to take my shirt off in a bar, but a guy I met at a bar taught me that it was okay to love my scars.

my scars shattered my confidence

When I was a kid, I loved going to men-only barbecues hosted by my family. As an effeminate boy who often had trouble communicating with his short-tempered construction worker father, I saw this as an opportunity to become part of him.

I wanted to strip my shirt off and create a masculine chorus line with my macho Irish uncles. However, I was afraid that the scar would stand out after the surgery.

I had a 4 inch keloid scar under my T-shirt. It looked like a slug in the garden, with pink bumpy lines. I was so distraught at having this on my chest that I measured myself every day hoping it would get smaller. I heard that it is effective for freckles, so I tried rubbing it with lemon juice. Sometimes I begged, “Can’t you just disappear?”

Eventually I gave up and named my scar Charlie.

But my uncle pulled my shirt and teased me for taking it off during a family barbecue. I hid behind a tree. His father found me. I expected a lecture on staffing. To my surprise, he wiped my tears with his shirt, put it back on, and ordered others to follow him as well. My dad saved me this time, but he knew he couldn’t hide Charlie forever.

I continued to fight with my body troubles

When I was 15, I was invited to a pool party. I was afraid to go, but I was desperate to be able to attend as my illness prevented me from attending many social events.

“Take off your shirt and get in the water,” my friend said.

“I don’t want to get a tan,” I lied.

As I watched everyone else having fun, I worried that leukemia would always hold me back, even if it was visible in the background.

So with a burst of adrenaline, I dove into the water. I felt liberated when I was swimming in my bare skin.

“What’s in your chest?” asked a classmate.

At that moment, I wanted to sink to the bottom of the pool. Embarrassed, I jumped down and called my dad to pick me up.

As I jumped into the wood-panelled station wagon, still soaking wet, my father promised me that time would heal all wounds and said I had nothing to be ashamed of. Not convinced, I asked him to turn on the radio.

My body has problems with complex sex and relationships

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I couldn’t get dressed or showered in front of other men at the gym. I envy the way they show off their bodies.

I became even more self-conscious in the bedroom and had to keep my shirt on during sex. Several men told me it ruined the mood and left in the middle of the hookup.

At 35, I had never been in a significant relationship before and was worried my body issues were getting in the way. “Cancer survivor with unsightly scars,” I typed into my dating profile. I got zero reply, so I went out looking for a man.

At the bar, I was no Beyoncé. I used to stand in a corner for hours. But one night a man came up to me and asked me to dance.

I tried to flirt when I found out he was a paramedic. “If you keep dancing, you’ll need CPR,” I said.

To my delight, Joe suggested that I go back to my house.

I learned to love my body – all the scars

Joe was the first to undress. I stared in disbelief. He also had a scar on his chest. I felt a strange sense of security until Joe took off my shirt and accidentally grazed Charlie. I was ashamed and turned away.

“A car accident,” he said. “and yours?”

“Cancer,” I said, covering up.

“You have a beautiful body,” he said, pulling me up.

For the first time, I felt safe enough to have shirtless sex, provided Joe would turn off the lights. When I reunited with Joe, we turned the lights on and had sex, but we never completely panicked or distanced ourselves.

Unfortunately, Joe ended things to get his ex back. I was relieved my anxiety hadn’t driven him away, but I was disappointed he was over. I realized later that we don’t have to be together for years for our relationship to be a significant one. I am still grateful for the few hours Joe made me feel comfortable.

The next time we had a family barbecue, I went shirtless with my relatives. My uncle said that I was fat. I laughed and appreciated that the focus was on my belly and not my scars.



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