A woman who had part of her face removed after a tumour developed near her windpipe has said she would turn down surgery to “fix her” – because she is perfect as she is.
Dawn Shaw was born with a teratoma tumour lodged near her trachea and doctors had to remove bones in the left side of her face in order to reach it.
The 48-year-old said although she has faced ridicule all her life for her appearance, she would not undergo corrective surgery.
“If somebody came up to me and said they could fix me tomorrow, I wouldn’t want them to,” Shaw said. “I don’t let my appearance define me."
She added: “The human face is always the first thing we notice about a person we meet, so having a face that is physically different has definitely changed the way the world perceives me, which in turn affects my view of the world.
“While I’ve had plenty of struggles, I’ve had triumphs as well. Though acceptance has taken time, I do not allow what some would consider a deformity to stop me from enjoying life.”
Within minutes of being born, Shaw was rushed away for an emergency tracheotomy as the tumour was preventing her from breathing.
Doctors initially believed they had removed the mass, but within months, it began to grow back and become wrapped around her bone.
Fearing the tumour would become cancerous, medics had no choice but to take out part of her jaw.
This caused misalignment to the left hand side of her face as well as hearing loss and paralysis.
Shaw has undergone a string of attempts at corrective surgery over the years, but opted out of further operations after complications saw her rushed to an intensive care unit when she was 21.
“I woke up with a tube down my throat and so much swelling in my face,” she said.
“For years, I was under the illusion surgeons could fix me, but eventually the benefits of surgery stopped outweighing the emotional damage it was doing to me.”
Throughout school, Shaw, of Grapeview in Washington, said her appearance made her the target of cruel taunts.
“I’ve blocked a lot of it out, but I remember one kid who’d wait for me after school and ask me how I could stand to look at myself,” she said.
“When I walked past, boys would nudge their friends and say, ‘There goes your girlfriend,’ as if to say being linked to me was in insult, or that I’d never find a boyfriend of my own.
“But I’m resilient, and although their words did hurt I still had confidence in myself, my personality and my abilities.
“Plus, I had a fantastic support system. My parents took me out into the world a lot growing up. You read of people who never leave the house and it’s so sad.
“If people want to be judgemental, that’s their problem, not that of the person on the receiving end of it.
“Yes, I have been mocked, stared at and avoided. But I’ve also been loved and protected, and never lost faith that eventually I would find somebody who could look past my face.”
However, she grew frustrated in her search for love, and found herself trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship in her 20s.
“I allowed myself to become co-dependant to a drug addict,” she said. “I threw myself at him even though he had no real interest in me.
“I had this false idea that I could fix him.”
Eventually, Shaw broke free and met her now husband Ian Shaw a year later when they both worked on a community theatre production.
The pair will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in September.
Shaw has always been a keen writer, and in 2005, she was inspired to pen her life story. Her book, Facing Up To It, charts her journey from craving acceptance to finally accepting herself.
While writing she also began to deliver speeches to schools to encourage children not to become preoccupied with appearance.
“It’s about learning to be kind to yourself,” she said. “Everybody needs to be around people who respect them.
“I talk a lot about bullying in my speeches and try to get anybody going through it to fight that fear that telling somebody will make it worse and find the strength to speak out.
“There are several forms of bullying. Excluding and shunning somebody is just as cruel as teasing and taunting them. It’s not hard to smile at someone and ask how they are, but it can make the world of difference to somebody in a bad place.”
Shaw also believes it is important to build self-esteem through activities and hobbies.
For her, this is tending to her Icelandic horses – although she is also a blackbelt in martial arts.
She is also campaigning against the use of the word “disfigurement”, calling for “facially different” to be used instead.
Reflecting on her story, Shaw said: “People often call me brave, which I accept as a compliment, but it puzzles me.
“I am pretty sure they are referring to that fact that I go out into the world with a face that looks like mine, but how is that brave? It is all I have known, and besides, what’s the alternative? Hiding myself away?
“Perhaps they assume that I must deal with stares, questions, comments and taunts on a daily basis. I do experience these things periodically, but certainly not daily.
“That certainly would put a damper on getting through each day, but even then, we learn to adjust. I just live my life.”