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Camouflage

by Ann Favreau

Inspiration image

Terry sits in the bus seat across from me as we travel the Egyptian highway through the desert to Abu Simbel. Although I suspect she is close to 60 years old, her natural brown curls bounce in contrast to the other women with their short hairstyles, gray or colored from a bottle. Her smile is infectious as she carries on a conversation with the young woman in front of her. Again today, she has on a very large necklace that covers her chest. This one is made of camel bone and features carved beads and figures of elephants. It’s a handsome piece that she probably bought from the Nubian woman who sat on the deck of our Nile River cruise boat displaying her wares as she made fine beaded necklaces.

The bus makes an unexpected stop, and the tour guide explains that our driver must help the driver of the bus behind us make repairs to the bathroom plumbing. We exit the bus and stand on the desert sand. There is nothing but a few power lines and miles of desert landscape. I take the opportunity to stand next to Terry and comment on her necklace.

As I stand there a bit bewildered by her answer, I see her eyes tear up.

“I like these large, expressive pieces,” she says. “They fill in my hollow chest.”

As I stand there a bit bewildered by her answer, I see her eyes tear up. “I’ve had three separate episodes of breast cancer and a double mastectomy,” she says.

Without hesitation, I step forward and give her a hug. “I’m a cancer survivor, too,” I respond and try to regain my composure as she relates her story of chemo, radiation, and surgery.

“The hardest part for me is worrying that my daughters will have to go through this,” she confesses. “My only consolation is that they know they have to be diligent about breast exams. They were great through the process and helped me learn how to arrange scarves when I lost all my hair.”

“This is not a wig,” she explains. “After my last episode, my hair came in brown and curly.”

“It must be wonderful to feel the curls cuddle your face.”

She laughs. “It’s better than looking in the mirror after a shower and seeing my mutilated body.”

“I know what you mean. I had trouble dealing with the scars and stoma after colostomy surgery.”

“You wear a bag! No one would ever know.”

“And no one would guess that your breasts are gone. I was drawn to your lively personality and your beautiful jewelry.”

She hugs me and whispers, “Here’s to camouflaging unseen pain.”

We re-enter the bus, each with our own thoughts. I look out the window and contemplate the wonder of two women, cancer survivors, living life to the full on a trip to see the wonders of the ancient world in Egypt, yet taking time to share personal stories and find joy amidst adversity.

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Ann Favreau is a 21-year colorectal cancer survivor and freelance writer. Her travels have taken her around the world. She is a past president of the United Ostomy Association, currently serves as Secretary of the International Ostomy Association, and is a member of the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2009.