My name is Sam, and I have a condition called pectus carinatum. I call it ‘pigeon chest’, partly because that is what it looks like, and partly because it makes me feel better about my condition. Looking at me from a distance, you would be forgiven for thinking that I don’t have any disability whatsoever. But although my condition is not easily visible, it affects me both mentally and physically on a daily basis.
Essentially what I have is a chest deformity, where my chest bone sticks out further than it should. Now, I understand that to those of you suffering from disabilities that restrict you from carrying out major life activities, it sounds like I have it pretty easy. And I suppose I do have it pretty easy. I can still do most of the things that I want to do, even if it tends to hurt a little now and then. But, generally, it doesn’t stop me from doing anything physically. But mentally, it affects me every day.
It is the apparent mildness of my condition that is perhaps the most damaging aspect. On the surface, I come across as a very able human being who could do anything he wanted to. This often makes it harder for me to exclude myself from certain activities. Take for instance, a recent trip to the beach with some family. My cousins were confused as to why I didn’t want to go swimming. Although my condition doesn’t physically restrict me from swimming, mentally I would feel very uncomfortable taking my top off. My pigeon chest is very visible, and I have passed up countless opportunities to do fun and interesting things because of my weird chest. I’ve even passed up girlfriend offers (I’m not just saying that!). Basically, my chest rules me.
Fortunately, there are options I can take to beat this. Firstly, and the most popular method by far, is undergoing surgery. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly rushing to the surgeon’s office to get my chest poked at (I’m pretty squeamish), but I can see why surgery is so popular amongst pigeon chest sufferers. It’s because there is a whole lot of false information out there. The first time I plucked up the courage to go and visit my doctor about my chest, I was met with a shrug of the shoulders and a recommendation to go under the knife. If it hadn’t been for the many hours I spent lurking on Internet forums and dodgy websites, I might well have paid for the surgery. But I knew there were other methods of beating pigeon chest, and it was these methods that I decided to pursue.
The first method was the use of a brace. The braces are designed to apply constant but gentle pressure to my chest, gradually reducing the amount that it sticks out. So far, so good. Except, I’m a guy. The idea of walking around wearing something that looks like a bra is not exactly my idea of perfect. And even though it is hardly visible under my t-shirt, for some reason I always have the thought that somebody will have a heart attack while I’m out. Then, as the only male in the vicinity, I will be asked to remove my shirt to give the victim a blanket, thus exposing my strange brace/man bra. These are the kinds of strange thoughts that I have on a daily basis. Maybe I should see a psychologist.
The second method involves performing exercises to try and strengthen your whole body, and correct the deformity. This is the method that I am having the most success with, although there has been a whole lot of trial and error involved. As soon as I read online that exercises could help my pigeon chest, I went to the gym the next day and jumped straight onto the bench press. Bad idea, it turns out. After spending the next 2 weeks with an ice pack pressed firmly against my chest, I planned a slightly less careless way of incorporating exercises into my daily routine. I decided to invest in some resistance bands, and I noticed some pretty immediate results. I quickly realized that by focusing on my back muscles I was drastically improving my posture, which in turn was improving my pigeon chest immensely. After plucking up the courage to go back to the gym, I continued to notice an improvement in my chest by utilizing chest bands, something I would have never believed I would be comfortable using.
The last method that I would like to cover is something that my family, my friends and even my doctor recommended to me; leave it alone. My initial response to this piece of advice was one of anger. How could they expect me to do nothing about something that was affecting me so much? But upon reflection, I began to realize that maybe this advice was wiser than I first thought. There was a point in my life when every waking minute was consumed by thoughts of my pigeon chest. I would plan ways to conceal it, to keep people from touching it and to get rid of it. But the reality was that very few people realized I even had the condition, and those that did know didn’t really care. It wasn’t a big deal to them; it was a big deal to me.
Although I haven’t overcome my pigeon chest, and I probably never will, I have learnt to deal with it. I can now talk about it openly (I would have never asked to write for Disability Visibility Project a few years ago) and even with a sense of pride. I know that pectus carinatum is not necessarily a common condition to have, but I hope that my experiences resonate with anybody who has to live with something that makes them feel different.
Sam Williamson is a pectus carinatum sufferer who enjoys talking openly about his condition. You can follow his pigeon chest adventures at: http://pigeonchestproblems.com/