My Red Badges of Courage

My Red Badges of Courage

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

My Red Badges of Courage

Only when you truly inhabit your body can you begin the healing journey.

Gabrielle Roth

That morning, I struggled with what I was wearing, knowing I’d be out on the basketball court with other young moms, all those healthy people who might look sideways at my angry red scars and be offended. I thought about changing clothes, but I really didn’t want to and didn’t have the time, so I decided to go as I was and face the stares. I’d faced stares before.

After the game, my kids and I went to a department store to buy my eight-year-old some basketball shoes.

I was wearing a tank top under a zippered sweatshirt, and hadn’t realized that my purse, which out of habit I’d slung over my right shoulder, pulled my sweatshirt open. My scars were easily visible to anyone who might be paying attention. The saleslady was paying attention.

We were hunched over, looking for the right shoe size among the boxes stacked under the display, when she stood up and looked at me with a serious expression.

She said, “Can I ask you a personal question?”

“Yes,” I said, though not really knowing why.

She asked, very quietly, “Is that a surgery scar?”

“Yes, it is.” I knew exactly what she meant as she started to ask, “Did you have surgery for . . . can . . . ?”

She didn’t finish her question, so I did: “Cancer? Yes, I had breast cancer.” I glanced over her shoulder briefly, just in time to see a woman look at me and then duck down, pretending to look at a pair of shoes she’d spotted.

“And . . . did you . . . beat it?” she asked, almost whispering.

“Yes, I did,” I smiled back at her.

Then she reached up and lightly touched a finger to her own breast and softly said, “Last month I found a lump. I don’t know what to do about it.”

I paused, slight tears welling into my eyes. “You need to have this checked immediately.” I reached out and touched her arm gently.

“I’m scared to find out if it is cancer.”

My thoughts darted to that day a lifetime ago when I found my lump while in the shower and convinced myself it was just a cyst. I didn’t want to know either. I have since learned that fear is never a reason for not doing something, and I told her as much, adding that she would very likely find out that the lump is benign. I asked, “Wouldn’t you rather have it checked and know that it’s nothing so you could relax?”

“Are a cyst and cancer different?”

“Yes, they are very different. And if you get it checked this week and find out that it is cancer, well then, you very likely have found it in time to beat it.”

“Oh . . .” was all she could manage to say.

“Unfortunately, I waited six months after finding my lump before going to get it checked out. I sometimes wonder, if I had gone earlier, if I would have avoided a complete mastectomy or chemotherapy or radiation.” She only nodded, wide eyes glancing down to my chest.

“Where should I start?”

“Go to your gynecologist, who will first do a manual exam and, if the lump seems suspicious, will send you to a lab for a mammogram. You’ll be well taken care of from there one way or another. Please . . . promise me that you’ll go this week.”

She nodded, then seemed embarrassed and turned to move away, muttering that she needed to see to other customers.

Smiling, I said, “That’s fine,” and added, “and I need to thank you for something. If I have helped you because you saw my scar, then it was worth letting you and anyone else notice it.” She let out a soft cry and briefly put her head down before looking back up to smile at me.

That evening as my husband and I talked while making dinner, I shared this story. He declared, “Darn right you should show those scars. They are medals of honor. You fought and won a heck of a war.” Yes, I did, and from that day to this, I proudly show my scars, my Red Badges of Courage.

Donna St. Jean Conti

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