My teammates on the United States Disabled Ski Team used to tease me about the size of my chest, joking that my greatest handicap wasn’t my missing leg but my missing cleavage. Little did they know how true that would become. This past year, I found out that for the second time in my life I had cancer, this time in both breasts. I had bilateral mastectomies.
When I heard I’d need the surgery, I didn’t think it would be a big deal. I even told my friends playfully, “I’ll keep you abreast of the situation.”After all, I had lost my leg to my first go-round with cancer at age 12, then gone on to become a world-champion ski racer. All of us on the Disabled Ski Team were missing one set of body parts or another. I saw that a man in a wheelchair can be utterly sexy. That a woman who has no hands can appear not to be missing anything. That wholeness has nothing to do with missing parts and everything to do with spirit. Yet although I knew this, I was surprised to discover how difficult it was to adjust to my new scars.
When they brought me back to consciousness after the surgery, I started to sob and hyperventilate. Suddenly I found that I didn’t want to face the loss of more of my body. I didn’t want chemotherapy again. I didn’t want to be brave and tough and put on a perpetual smiling face. I didn’t ever want to wake up again. My breathing grew so shaky that the anesthesiologist gave me oxygen and then, thankfully, put me back to sleep.
When I was doing hill sprints to prepare for my ski racing – my heart and lungs and leg muscles all on fire – I’d often be hit by the sensation that there were no resources left inside me with which to keep going. Then I’d think about the races ahead – my dream of pushing my potential as far as it could go, the satisfaction of breaking through my own barriers – and that would get me through the sprints. The same tenacity that served me so well in ski racing helped me survive my second bout1 with cancer.
After the mastectomies, I knew that one way to get myself going would be to start exercising again, so I headed for the local pool. In the communal shower, I found myself noticing other women’s breasts for the first time in my life. Size-D breasts and size-A breasts, sagging breasts and perky breasts. Suddenly and for the first time, after all these years of missing a leg, I felt acutely self-conscious. I couldn’t bring myself to undress.
I decided11 it was time to confront myself. That night at home, I took off all my clothes and had a long look at the woman in the mirror. She was androgynous. Take my face – without makeup, it was a cute young boy’s face. My shoulder muscles, arms and hands were powerful and muscular from the crutches. I had no breasts; instead, there were two prominent scars on my chest. I had a sexy flat stomach, a bubble butt14 and a well-developed thigh15 from years of ski racing. My right leg ended in another long scar just above the knee.
I discovered that I liked my androgynous body. It fit my personality – my aggressive male side that loves getting dressed in a helmet, arm guards and shin protectors to do battle with the slalom gates, and my gentle female side that longs to have children one day and wants to dress up in a beautiful silk dress, go out to dinner with a lover and then lie back and be slowly undressed by him.
I found that the scars on my chest and my leg were a big deal. They were my marks of life. All of us are scarred by life; it’s just that some of those scars show more clearly than others. Our scars do matter. They tell us that we have lived, that we haven’t hidden from life. When we see our scars plainly, we can find in them, as I did that day, our own unique beauty.
The next time I went to the pool I showered naked.