At Face Value: Rebounding from a Disfiguring Cancer

Terry Healey was 20 years old, a junior at UC Berkeley, president of his fraternity, and an athlete who had no problem finding girlfriends. Not quite a year later he woke up with tissue from his shoulder connected to his face, and life did a 180.

Terry had been diagnosed with a rare bone cancer called fibrosarcoma. The surgery necessitated removal of part of his nose and lip, muscle and bone from his cheek, the shelf of his right eye, and some teeth. The flap from his shoulder filled in the cavity left.

Even when he was first diagnosed six months before this operation, his confidence was at an all time high.

“I thought I’d cheated the system, because I had one surgery, then went back to my normal life, thinking I’d beat this.

“But it came back with a vengeance. Once the tumor was removed, I looked in the mirror and saw this flap of tissue hanging from my face. That’s when it hit me, Oh my God this is serious.”

The next jarring slap came the day he was discharged, as soon as he walked into the waiting room.

“Everyone was staring at me; kids were pointing and giggling, and I realized I was very different now.”

Terry was thrown into a world of medical jargon he didn’t understand, and back-to-back doctors’ appointments to discuss more surgeries, with no idea what he would look like when he came out of them.

“My girlfriend basically bailed on me, and I had no one to talk to who had ever heard of fibrosarcoma, much less had it.”

Through an onslaught of surgeries, his right eye started to droop, his nose pulled to the side, and his lip pulled up.  All along he was withdrawing from people.

“I met a girl in the hospital just after my 30th surgery, when I was starting to look a little better. She strangely took an immediate interest in me. She was gorgeous, had a great attitude, and I couldn’t figure out why she liked me. We were spending a lot of time together. But one weekend she looked at me and said, ‘You have a lot of insecurities I can’t deal with.’”

The short-lived, happy courtship was over, but the breakup was a turning point.

“Dina taught me that it wasn’t my external scars that were the issue. The issue was how these scars affected me internally. It’s how you feel inside and present yourself that makes people want to be with you. I started thinking I could go through surgeries forever hoping to improve my looks. I thank her to this day because she was the wake up call that changed my focus.”

Terry stopped the reconstructive surgeries and got into a support group at The Wellness Community (now called Cancer Support Community). In the meetings he attended week in and out, he found himself surrounded by survivors with similar concerns.

“There were women with breast cancer who felt bad about the way they looked since surgery. There were survivors very conscious about losing their hair.

“But when they heard my story, so many of them would say they felt better; they thanked me for my perspective.  I started feeling more confident; these people reinforced that I could help other survivors.”

Twenty-seven years out from his initial diagnosis, when he’s not developing marketing strategies for tech companies, Terry’s doing inspirational speaking at conferences, corporations, and schools, or fundraising for cancer support non-profits. He went on to write a book: At Face Value: My Triumph Over a Disfiguring Cancer.” His outreach keeps him close to his experience, reminding him of what’s important. And what’s the million-dollar answer?

“What counts is being able to look at the internal rather than the external fabric. I do my best not to judge anyone, because people that appear different oftentimes bring rich experience and new perspective.”

How do you move on, to get to your inner core?

“I basically have four suggestions,” says Terry.

“Surround yourself with positive people. Have a purpose in life–one that entails more than treatment. Go to support groups or talk to a counselor—sometimes you need to share your innermost thoughts and fears with someone on the outside.

“Last for me is to have goals and anticipate reaching them… It’s about taking control of your life. In my case part of this was working to get back to who I was. And learning to like my body again.”

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