Hacked off

Susan Gubar has done it again. She’s written another fantastic post for The New York Times‘s Well blog. This one is about The Scar Project, which is near and dear to my heart. Perhaps it’s a theme this week: scars, invisible and visible, and how we cancerchicks live with them for the rest of our lives. The women pictured in The Scar Project will have a long, long time to figure out how to live with those scars, as they are all under the age of 40.

Says Gubar of the young women portrayed: “The youthfulness of David Jay’s subjects wrenches me. Unlike them, I had a good span of my adult life — more than 60 years — before treatment. Their bodies stopped being their own too soon. Did their selves also stop being their own too soon? Cancer scars are physical mutilations of and on the body; but, more than that, cancer scars the psyche, the soul, the spirit. The ‘me’ before cancer is not the ‘me’ after cancer. Nor can these identities always be sutured.”

Yes, Susan Gubar, I think it’s safe to say that our bodies and our selves did indeed stop being their own too soon. I was 40 when I was diagnosed, which is old by The Scar Project standards, but I can say with certainty that it totally sucks to have been denied a good span of my adult life before cancer . It’s a drag. Because estrogen feeds my cancer, and many other varieties of breast cancer, I had to shut off the supply of that vital hormone. Being forcefully fast-forwarded into menopause also sucks. Aging on an unnatural timeframe, well ahead of my peers, does too. Having to face mortality decades in advance extracts a heavy toll on us cancerchicks. We want to live long, healthy normal lives; we want to see our children grow up. We hope that cancer doesn’t have other plans for us. Gubar touches on this, too, writing this about the young women portrayed in The Scar Project photos: “The ones that grip me stare at the photographer — at me — defiant. They want to live. I want them to live. Like Barbara Ehrenreich, David Jay seeks to unsettle a ‘public anesthetized by pink ribbons and fluffy teddy bears.’” Unsettle away, Mr Jay.

Gubar writes that “David Jay’s portraits contain images of women whose bared breasts look crumpled, concave, synthetic, reconstructed without or with reconfigured nipples, stitched horizontally or vertically or at an acute angle, lumpy, lopsided, wounded, or hacked off. Bravery resides there, beauty elsewhere.”

Wounded. Hacked off. Those descriptions apply both to my body and my soul. My body is wounded, and like my cancer-ridden breasts, I am hacked off. That this disease happens. That it takes so much from those who are so young. That it steals so much beauty, both internal and external. That the scars that remain are so upsetting, so unsettling. That this disease robs us of our youthfulness and our peace of mind. That the cancer experience changes who we are, forever, and not always in ways that are good or positive.

Gubar says that before cancer, she may have been perceived as being “ungrateful for an intact body, taking for granted organs that functioned normally, arrogant about the boons of health, ignorant of the preciousness of life.” As the old saying goes, we don’t know what we’ve got til its gone, and so too it is with cancer. Pre-cancer, I didn’t think about an intact body, fully functional organs, the boons of health and the preciousness of life the way I do now. While there are days I’m grateful to be up and about and not confined to a hospital bed or tethered to an IV pole, there are many more days in which I’m hacked off. While I take notice of air filling my lungs and appreciate my stamina at the gym, that appreciation is tempered by sadness at what I had to go through. While I am happy that I’m capable of achieving strength and fitness again after the cancer, surgeries, infection, and treatment took their pound of flesh (literally), I’m pissed that my triumph is bested by the omnipresent fear of recurrence.

I can identify with Gubar 100 percent when she says, “I remember the ‘me’ before cancer nostalgically. My earlier self could … connect with family and friends spontaneously and lavishly. At times I visualize the diagnosis as a gun aimed at a flying bird — pitched down from the sky in an instant to lie fluttering on the ground.”




Susan Gubar ends her beautiful article by pointing out that “the young women in The Scar Project were gunned down while just trying their wings. With courage, the wounded survivors bear invisible scar tissue beneath the physical scars of cancer: the haunting lost person each might have become, had it not been for the disease. They live, but not the lives they would have led.”

10 Comments on “Hacked off”

  1. AnneMarie says:

    EXCELLENT… excellent!!! The title got me…


  2. Eddie says:

    I was expecting tales of morons in the carpool lane. I really appreciate how you captured the feeling of having illusions of predictability or control punctured. It’s like looking behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz; there is no going back.

  3. Marie says:

    Superb! You had me from hacked off….

  4. […] take some time this weekend to read “Hacked Off” –  The Pink Underbelly’s thoughts on David Jay’s Scar Project – it really is a superb must […]

  5. Hmm, that’s a very interesting article you’ve shared on the Scar Project. And I have to say, that as a young woman included in her conversation because of my diagnosis & surgery . . . I’m not such a fan of some of her language.

    I have flashbacks to a more innocent me and know that no matter what, I’ll never go back there – so I understand that loss, that grief, that sadness . . . But when I see my body, I see MY body. Even if we had a fight, even if it went bizark, even if I’ve hated it at times – it’s mine. When I see my chest, I don’t see a body part that’s been hacked off. I see a long thin scar that is a place of regret, but not-not-not something mutilated.

    Of course, we’re all probably trying to say the same thing and just choosing different words/images. But I can’t help but bristle against the idea of hacking, or of my wings being gone. I’m only 30 years old, there’s a heck of a lot of flying left to do. ~Catherine

    • Dear Catherine,
      I have never read words more beautiful or brave, this brought me to tears with the courage displayed in every letter typed. I hope your flight is a long and fulfilling one. Nancy, as always I love your blog and your message. I read it every day and admire your honesty, courage and ability to “show” your truth.
      Sincerely Cookie

  6. jbaird says:

    Wow, this is so very powerful. When I think of those birds, it makes me cry. Such a poignant analogy. Thanks for pointing this article out to your readers. xo

  7. Wow! This post packs a punch. Especially the quote: “…pitched down from the sky in an instant to lie fluttering on the ground.”

  8. Editor says:

    well, I’m in tears. I’m a bit older than you, Nancy. OK. An entire decade. Someone said to me, before I had the mastectomy and DIEP flap that “Well, at least you’re going into menopause, so it’s not as if you’re a young woman.” Seriously. I don’t care how old you are, you deserve to live a life with a body intact, with menopause coming as it naturally would not packaged in a treatment that fast-forwards the very worst of it. I may not be as young as the women in The SCAR Project, but I still feel gunned down by cancer. Hacked. Violated. My wings clipped.
    I understand what Catherine says about having a lot of flying left to do. I’d like to think I do too. Regardless, each of us has been forced to do it with less confidence, unable to fully soar.
    Thanks for this, nancy. Great post.

  9. […] in David Jay’s The Scar Project. I’ve written about this amazing body of work here and here. The photographs are raw and real, just like cancer […]

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