Tattoos, really? After weeks of radiation, chemotherapy and mastectomy, are tattoos really something I need to think about? Well, here I am, one-year post mastectomy. One year of looking at my zipper-like chest thinking this isn’t what I want to look at the rest of my life. Maybe a tattoo isn’t such a far-out idea. I saw something online with several women very proud of their floral designs, but that isn’t quite me.
As a child of the 60’s, my tattoo attitude has always been conservative. I was really proud of my contemporary thinking when I boldly stepped into permanent makeup and got tattooed eyeliner so I could skip the mess after swimming. I even went so far as to have the gal tattoo my eyebrows on after they refused to come back when my hair returned. But a large tattoo just seems so much. . . bigger. Tattoos on my chest; however, is a little more thought provoking. So, I started my investigation online by Googling “tattoos.” Whoa, that one word was too broad, and I quickly realized I needed to get specific. So I volunteered to share my tattoo exploration with you, my Firefly friends.
To Tattoo or Not, that is the Question
Starting with the mastectomy, we are confronted with multiple decisions, from simple reconstruction to multiple surgeries, weeks and even months apart. Once again, choices, but this time, the choice to tattoo or not is so much more long-term. Do I want to look at an artificial nipple/areola throughout my life? Maybe simple leaves wouldn’t be so bad. Unlike the plastic surgery choices—from no reconstruction to tissue expanders, to flap construction with belly or back tissue, to immediate small implants—this choice wasn’t so much health related as emotional. Several Firefly participants shared their experience with me. Some decided on tattoos, others, not to tattoo.
I began with Greta, a 4+ year breast cancer survivor who started with bilateral implants. While her implants are different and not quite equal, she is happy with her results, but admits it has been a much bigger adjustment than she anticipated. As she adjusted to her new breasts, she considered nipple and areola tattoos. Many consider this to be the final step in breast reconstruction. After reviewing many beautiful choices and discussions with her support team, she decided not to tattoo. Her restoration felt complete already and the joy of bra-lessness was enough. Her feelings of self-consciousness in the gym was fading and with it, the confidence and assurance of a new normal was coming into focus. Her pearl of wisdom: “It’s going to be OK, but it is not going to be the same.”
Shayna, a young breast cancer survivor, approached the topic with the question of looking like a Barbie doll for the rest of her life. Implants restored her need for shape but if you recall our beloved Mattel Barbie of years gone by, she was beautifully designed with nice sized breasts with a plastic seam across the middle. I never noticed myself but then it has been years since a naked Barbie was found in my home. Shayna’s plastic surgeon employed a Medical Tattoo artist as part of their practice, so during her mastectomy follow-up care, an appointment with their artist was offered. After her consultation with the artist, she moved forward with a tattoo. Her healthcare provider offered the option, whereas others do not. Shayna is very happy she no longer looks like a Barbie and is enjoying a joyful, beautiful survivorship.
Joyce had her entire mastectomy incision covered with a beautiful floral tattoo when she was chosen by P-ink, an organization that offers complementary mastectomy tattoos to a few women throughout the country on a first come/first serve basis. Joyce’s tattoo artist donated her time and materials to create and then tattoo the design. On the day of her tattoo, Joyce, with her sister as support, joined 6 other survivors for their tattooing. Joyce’s flowers—4 o’clocks—took approximately 6 hours to tattoo due to their extensive design, but cookies, coffee, and good support made the time fly by.
I, of course, wanted details:
- What about pain? Joyce said it was minimal, maybe a little burning but nothing she couldn’t handle.
- Was it hard to stay in one position for 6 hours? With her sister joining her, they were able to keep busy until finished.
- What about recovery? Nothing special. They provided a special soap and lotion to place on the tattoo.
- Can you see the design through a white t-shirt? Joyce, like Greta and Shayna, enjoys the bralessness of mastectomy and if she is concerned about see-through, she wears a tank/camisole beneath the t-shirt. Overall, the result is very feminine and quite beautiful. She and her plastic surgeon were so pleased they took pictures for both her file and for others to consider. To quote Joyce, “the most important result was that when I look in the mirror now, I smile.” Now that’s what I am looking for.
P-ink has an app for phones that allows you to superimpose a tattoo on a picture of your own chest. It is simplistic but for the first time, I think I found one that might work. So stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog as I speak with tattoo artists about the process.
Linda is a 2 year survivor of triple positive breast cancer. She is a full time medical writer and resides in Maple Grove.