I have a scar on my chest from a cancer surgery. I was ashamed to take off my shirt, even during sex, but a hookup helped me love my scar.

Mark Williams standing on the beach in a shirt and hat
Mark Williams says he felt ashamed to take off his shirt.Mark Williams
  • At 8, I had surgery that left a scar on my chest that made me feel self-conscious.

  • As an adult, I struggled in gym locker rooms and didn't take my shirt off during sex.

  • But a man I met at a bar one night taught me I didn't need to be ashamed of my scar.

As an 8-year-old with leukemia, I faced many painful moments, like getting spinal taps and losing my hair. Knowing that all the procedures and side effects were temporary helped me cope with the pain.

But when I needed surgery, I was left with a scar on my chest. I was grateful my life was saved but struggled to come to terms with a permanent reminder of my illness.

For years I felt embarrassed to take my shirt off in public, until I met a man at a bar who showed me I could love my scar.

My scar shattered my confidence

Growing up, I loved going to my family's men-only barbecues. As an effeminate boy who often failed to connect with his hot-tempered construction-worker dad, I saw it as a chance to be one of the guys.

I wanted so badly to join my macho Irish uncles in ripping off our shirts and forming a manly chorus line of big, pale bellies. Post-surgery, however, I was afraid of revealing my scar.

Beneath my T-shirt was a 4-inch keloid mark: a pink, bumpy line that looked like a garden slug. Distraught over having this thing on my chest, I measured it every day hoping it'd get smaller. I even tried rubbing it off with lemon juice because I'd heard it worked for freckles. Sometimes I'd beg: "Can't you just disappear?"

Eventually I gave up and named my scar Charlie.

But at one of my family's barbecues, my uncle yanked my shirt and teased me about taking it off. I hid behind a tree. My dad found me; I expected a lecture on manning up. Surprisingly, he used his shirt to wipe my tears, put it back on, and ordered others to follow his lead. Though my dad saved me this time, I knew I couldn't hide Charlie forever.

I continued to struggle with body issues

When I was 15, I was invited to a pool party. I dreaded going, but after missing so many social events because of my sickness, I was desperate to feel included.

"Take your shirt off and get in the water," a friend said.

"I don't want to get sunburned," I lied.

As I stood by watching everyone else have fun, I worried that even though leukemia was in the rearview it would always hold me back.

So, with a burst of adrenaline, I dove into the water. Swimming around with my bare skin, I felt like I was breaking free.

"What's on your chest?" a classmate asked.

At that moment I wanted to sink to the bottom of the pool. Mortified, I jumped out and called my father to get me.

As I hopped into his wood-paneled station wagon still soaking wet, my dad promised that time would heal all wounds and said I had nothing to be ashamed of. Unconvinced, I asked to put on the radio.

My body issues complicated sex and relationships

In my 20s and 30s, I couldn't change or shower in front of other guys at the gym. I envied how they showed off their bodies.

I was even more self-conscious in the bedroom, where I insisted on leaving my shirt on during sex. Several guys told me it killed the mood and left mid-hookup.

At 35, I hadn't had a significant relationship and feared my body issues were standing in the way. "Cancer survivor with an unsightly blemish," I typed in a dating profile. I got zero responses, and I went out in search of a man.

At the bars, I was no Beyoncé. I often stood in the corner for hours. But one night a man came up to me and asked me to dance.

When I learned he was a paramedic, I tried to be flirtatious. "I'll need CPR if we keep dancing," I said.

To my delight, Joe suggested we go back to his place.

I learned to love my body — scars and all

Joe was the first to undress. I stared in disbelief. He, too, had a scar on his chest. I felt strangely comforted until Joe pulled off my shirt and accidentally grazed Charlie. I turned away, embarrassed.

"Car accident," he said. "And yours?"

"Cancer," I said, covering up.

"Your body is beautiful," he said, pulling me closer.

For the first time, I felt safe enough to make love without a shirt — on the condition that Joe turned off the lights. When I saw Joe again, we had sex with the lights on, and I didn't totally panic or pull away.

Unfortunately, Joe ended things to get back with his ex. I was relieved my insecurities hadn't driven him away but disappointed it was over. I later realized we didn't have to be together for years for our relationship to be significant. I remain grateful for the few hours Joe made me feel comfortable in my skin.

At my next family barbecue, I joined my relatives in going shirtless. An uncle said I was getting fat. I laughed, grateful the attention was on my stomach and not on my scar.

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