My Shoulders

My shoulders. They have been blessed to bear the burdens of my life. But those burdens have left my shoulders scarred and stiff. Inflexible. Too tender for touch.

My shoulders tell many stories, particularly the left shoulder where I have a thick scar. Thinner on the ends, pale pink in the center and red along the edge.

This scar is now more than 20 years old, from when I was in the midst of cancer treatment (bone cancer, a large tumor above my knee). I had an ‘infusaport,’ a catheter, inserted into my shoulder so the chemotherapy could be administered more easily and directly into my bloodstream. Previously, they had tried IVs in my arms & hands, but these were inadequate for the task of administering the volume of drugs that I would receive. I would need a semi-permanent catheter embedded between the skin and muscle of my shoulder.

They had to make an incision about 3” long to insert the port. This scar never healed well, as the chemo was killing all of the ‘growing’ cells in my body—including those that would close the incision. My weekly chemo was pumped through a 3”long needles inserted into my shoulder and into the port. The needles left gaping holes that would not heal. Open sores.

By the time I was finished with my treatments, things started to heal. At least on the outside. But I couldn’t stand to touch my shoulder–not even with soap and washcloth–and I flinched whenever someone brushed against the shoulder accidentally. I always approached hugs with the right side of my body, hoping to avoid contact with the left.

I was self-conscious about the scar, which even years later was a raw red color. When I went to prom and chose a dress with thin straps, my Mom sewed a ruffle to cover my left shoulder. A Young Women’s leader taught me to sew my own swimsuits, and I learned to put bright ruffles and straps across my left side.

I married about 8 years after the end of my chemotherapy treatments. I explained to John about my shoulder, asked him not to avoid it. Warned him of the teeth-gritting pain that accompanied even a light touch. I trusted him to be gentle. And he has been.

In meditation over the past few months, I’ve come to realize that my shoulders are carrying great pain. They are stiff and tight. I stoop. By the evening they are sore and burning, they have knots of stress. I began to realize the need for healing. To make them my own again. I started gentle stretches. Worked to make them more loose. Looked at myself in the mirror and pulled my shoulders back–standing straight and tall.

I told my yoga teacher of my desire to work on my shoulders. She pulled me and a classmate aside. She had me bend at the waist, then balance on one foot with the other foot stretched out straight behind me. The other woman took my wrists and pulled them firmly towards her. So my shoulders were being stretched forward. And my teacher put her hands on my shoulders. Lightly and firmly. “You are strong, so strong” she said. And I believe her.

Jana is a university administrator and teaches History. Her soloblog is


  1. What a beautiful post, Jana! It’s a stunning reminder of how our bodies may carry the scars and injuries of the past. I also liked the image of a teacher and another woman as part of your stretching. I know I certainly need the help of wise teachers and friends along the way.

    I had knee problems as a teenager, and continued to have a habitual limp long after the physical damage to the knee had healed. It was only a year ago, with the help of an Alexander Technique teacher that I consciously changed my patterns of walking and moving. I still revert when I am tired, stressed out, or distracted. It’s an ongoing process of awareness.

    Jana, blessings on you and your shoulders on your healing journey. You are strong; thank you for sharing that strength with the rest of us.

  2. Jana, this is great. Like Amy, I love the image of other women helping you heal.

    I’ve been lucky to not have had any serious injuries or scars. Until this last year when I got pregrant and gained 50 (!) pounds. Now my whole mid section is covered with bright red stretch marks. It’s a little distressing to have these lines all over me, but on the other hand they tell a story, and that’s kind of neat.

  3. Beautiful.

    I carry my worries in my jaw and neck, and wish I could find a way to be kinder to these perennially sore muscles.

    Caroline: Have you seen the website “Shape of a Mother?” It may help you appreciate those stretch marks (says the woman who has never given birth).

  4. Jana, I agree, your writing is so evocative.

    (I also love the paintings ExII bloggers often choose to accompany posts. I’d love to see captions of some kind, as my art knowledge is pathetically lacking!)

  5. As a nurse, I was relieved to know you had an implanted port. Not having one would have been much worse.

    As a woman, I can sympathize with tight and painful shoulders. I seem to hold all my stress in my neck and jaw. In addition to stretching, I try to get a massage about once a month to help ease the strain. Good friends also help with a shoulder rub every once in a while.

    And, more and more, I am forced to be aware of how time wears on my body. The sore ankle that I broke on my first time snowboarding. The knee that has troubled me since a basketball injury in junior high school. Not being able to stay up all night, like I used to be able to. Legs that are a little stiffer than they were ten years ago. And yet, I feel calmer in the face of adversity, and more able to deal with problems as they surface. Yes, time wears on my body, but it also smoothes out the rough spots on my mind and soul.

  6. Dora:
    The port was good in some ways (my arm veins were so collapsed/damaged that it wasn’t unusual to have 15 pokes before they could find a good vein). However, I was the first person to have a port at my hospital and I was the guinea pig that they learned on (or rather, that they made mistakes on). That, coupled with a sensitivity to adhesive–basically any kind of dressings that they used on it–meant a lot of pain in that shoulder. Even now when I think about it for more than a few seconds I start to get nauseous. Eeuuuwwwww.

  7. Late to the party, as usual, but I should say that I enjoyed this post. Thanks for the provocative imagery. Our bodies really are, to some degree or other, books about our lives. Beautiful thoughts.

    Amy — I’ve never noticed you limping before (probably because I was too busy chasing kids) — that’s interesting to note.

  8. Amy,

    I wonder if your limping may have contributed to my mesmerization. You know, sort of like hypnosis — rocking back and forth, “you are getting veeerrrry sleeeeppyy.”

    Nah — I probably would have been mesmerized either way. 😉

  9. Deborah,
    I have seen “Shape of a Mother.” Very cool. I saw it when I was nine months pregnant and I was inspired to take pictures of my huge belly. But I’ve never taken the after pictures of my now soft, saggy and scarred belly. I should do that.

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