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Scars and Inspiration

By Heather Millar

One of the things that has driven me mad, almost since the day of my diagnosis, is the strange idea that cancer patients are, just by existing, “inspiring.”

Cancer patients are suffering, enduring, waiting. They’re sick. They’re scared. What is it about surgery, debilitating nausea, bone pain, neuropathy, mouth sores and radiation burns that the healthy find “inspiring”?  I think it’s a way of pushing aside the disturbing aspects of cancer, especially the fact that it can maim and kill you, and that it leaves scars, both psychological and physical.

Like many things these days, you can view society’s ambivalence about cancer on Facebook. In the past, the social networking site has inspired criticism when it has taken down post-mastectomy photos posted by members. I railed against this a couple years ago, when I first heard about it. Several women have formally challenged the policy. And 20,000 signed a petition calling for the ban to be lifted.

About ten days ago, though, Facebook announced that it was changing its policy, and that it would allow pictures of people post-mastectomy as long as those pictures don’t include full on pictures of unaffected breasts. Apparently, Facebook’s problem is really with nipples and genitalia, not with the scars of cancer surgery.

Of course, if you want to see pictures of the reality of cancer, you can find them beyond the boundaries of Facebook.

A husband documents his wife’s breast cancer treatment on The Huffington Post.

The SCAR Project has produced large-scale photo portraits of nude young breast cancer survivors, aged 18 to 35. These raw images, captured by New York-based fashion photographer David Jay, have given rise to a documentary, a book, and exhibitions in various cities. They show the full range of cancer’s horror: strength, fear, loneliness, humor, determination.

Many of the news stories about The SCAR Project quote women saying that they feel less alone when they see pictures like this. In previous posts, I’ve mentioned a breast cancer acquaintance of mine, Laurie Pomeranz, who wrote a lovely essay for Salon.com about ending up in a restaurant bathroom with a bunch of other breast cancer survivors, comparing mastectomy scars and breast reconstruction results.

All these women had faced terrible things, and yet they were together, unafraid to rip off their shirts and to share their experiences with each other. Now, that’s something about cancer I do find inspiring.

It takes more digging to find photo essays about cancer’s scars that are NOT about breast cancer, but I found a few: Time’s The Landscape of Cancer Treatment, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection of photos of a single mother and her child’s losing battle with cancer, The New York Times Picture Your Life After Cancer multimedia project that documents the experience of 1,500 survivors, a Ladies Home Journal photo essay about hospice, and the National Geographic cancer photo gallery.

And there’s one more: The Tutu Project. It’s a little off-topic, but it will bring a smile to your face: A burly, hairy guy with kind eyes photographs himself in a pink tutu everywhere from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, to a farm field in upstate New York. He’s doing it to raise money for breast cancer, which has affected his wife.

People sharing. People caring. That’s something I do find inspiring.

What about you? Are there photos of cancer battles and survivorship that have inspired you?

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