How do we ensure that every single middle-aged man and woman knows the symptoms for colon cancer? A persistent change in bowel habits, an inability to empty your bowels, rectal bleeding, persistent abdominal discomfort, fatigue, unexplained weight loss. And after the pandemic ends, how can disease remain on our radar as the greatest threat to our national health and security? Diseases like cancer—along with unintentional injuries and suicides—comprise the leading causes of death in the United States. Not homicides and armed robberies. Not attacks from foreign or domestic terrorists.
As I processed what had happened to my body, I began to forgive myself. And as my scars healed, I started looking at them differently. I stopped seeing them as the tracks of my shame. I stopped insisting on covering them up.
But it took some time. We’re taught, particularly as men, to hide our emotions, our fears, our inner thoughts. We’re effectively taught to hide our scars. We’re taught that this hiding is masculine, when, in fact, it’s easy to hide. Cowardice hides. What takes courage is to be vulnerable, to bare our scars to the world.
I think about Sadiqa, who went under the knife to have her breast cancer removed in 2014. And about her Aunt Delores, who once, when Sadiqa was a little girl, showed her niece the scars on her own chest. “You don’t have to be afraid of them,” she said. Aunt Delores would eventually die of breast cancer, but the memory of those healing words would always offer solace to Sadiqa.
What courageous women. But what about men? We have scars too. There are countless men walking around with surgical scars like mine, ashamed of them as I was, hiding them as I was, willing to reveal them—as I was not.
Perhaps Chadwick Boseman’s heartrending death from colon cancer on August 28, 2020—exactly two years after my surgery—pushed me over the edge. Soon, my survivor’s guilt evolved into a survivor’s courage and a willingness to be vulnerable.
I decided to publicly reveal my scars. Other men, I soon realized, were ready and willing to do the same. Alongside these six patients and survivors—men who have undergone treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Medical Center—I’m telling my story not only to raise awareness for colon cancer, but also to encourage other men to amass the courage to fight on, to end any self-loathing, to be vulnerable. We should see our scars as monuments to our cancer fights, as the most memorable tattoos on our bodies, as second birth marks. And we should never hide them.
We remain when, heartbreakingly, so many do not. We remain to tell their stories and our own stories through our scars. I love that Sadiqa and my four-year-old daughter, Imani, can see my scars. Because that means I’m alive to see them, too.
Ibram X. Kendi is the director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research and the best-selling author of ‘How to Be an Antiracist.’