TRANSFORMATION IS A PROCESS
I remember my first tattoos. Yes, plural. I got 4 on the same day. I was 48 years old and a little apprehensive. It was June 2017 and I was preparing for 25 rounds of radiation so I needed 4 black pinpoint-sized tattoos on my chest for the radiation therapists to know where to point those life-saving beams.
I’m kind of a freckly person, so the dots aren’t all that noticeable, certainly not in comparison to the scars that stretch from one armpit to the other with about an inch of scar-free skin in the middle. It’s really hard to notice tattoos when that’s going on. Not that the scars are unsightly or anything. My surgeon did a lovely job, all considering.
When I was first diagnosed with Breast Cancer in December of 2016, I thought that I would likely have reconstructive surgery, aka a boob job, after my mastectomy if all went according to plan and I was going to live long enough to make it worth my while. The problem was my oncologist told me to wait at least 3 years. When I asked why he said he was concerned that my cancer might return and it would be harder to catch if I had implants. That put a wrench in my plans to have the perfect cleavage I dreamed of as a 16-year-old. It wasn’t worth it. I put those dreams aside and started to investigate staying flat instead. I joined a couple of Facebook groups where women either told horror stories of what happened when they had reconstructive surgery or uplifting stories about the freedom of having a breast-free chest. Golf anyone?
I want to say that if a woman who has a mastectomy wants reconstruction, that is the best choice for her. If she doesn’t want it, that’s fine too. There are alternatives like wearing bras with prosthetics or knitted soft bra fillers too. In other words, you can be flat without looking it, if that makes you feel more confident.
I got used to how I looked. I don’t go completely flat but the bras I wear have minimal padding so that my clothes fit better. The thing is, every time I see my scars, I am reminded. Reminded of that time in my life when I suffered greatly to survive. A time in my life when much of my femininity was robbed, some permanently. Surgeries, visits to the chemo chair, hair loss including lashes and brows, fingernails disappearing, and menopause showing up years too early.
But the scars also remind me that I am here, alive, thriving and I beat it back.
Let’s go back to early 2017 for a moment. At the time, my close friend, Andrea told me that some women get their scars tattooed. When they look in the mirror, they see something beautiful rather than something upsetting. I immediately started to Google that, trying to find as many examples as possible. There weren’t many, I can assure you. Not surprising since it’s a pretty private thing. I was impressed with what I saw and the women who posted those photos. They did not look like victims. They looked badass. I appreciated that they would show their tattoo to the world. It was inspiring.
In May of 2022, I hit the 5th anniversary of being told I was cancer-free. Yes, I still had a lot of treatment left to undergo including the aforementioned radiation but after chemo and my mastectomy, there were no obvious signs of cancer left in my body. 5 years is a big deal. It’s the number where statistically you are a survivor. I understand that I can have a recurrence but 5 years is a monumental milestone in the breast cancer world. So why not mark the anniversary with something monumental?
This brings me back to the tattoo. I knew what I wanted for years. Sunflowers. There’s a saying that goes...“Be a sunflower, stand strong and follow the sun.” I love this quote. This was my mantra while going through treatment. This is hard. Stay positive.
Knowing what I wanted was one thing, finding an artist was another. I had been researching and following local artists on Instagram for years, constantly searching for other women who had gotten mastectomy tattoos. Again, there weren’t many.
On March 24th I messaged the owner of Atomic Cherry Tattoo in Burlington, Ontario, Julia Bell (@juliabelltattoo), and asked her if she’d ever done a mastectomy tattoo. She said she had and I booked an appointment with her for May. I did not tell a soul, save my friend Amanda Weldon (@belowtheblonde) who snapped some shots of the process. She was moving into her first house that day but still took the time to come by as a favour to me. It’s always nice to have professional (and very generous) photographers in your friend group.
I had sent Julia my inspiration for the artwork, a painting by local Hamilton, Ontario artist Michelle Guitard (@artandsoulcreative), and asked her to do her own variation of it. What she came up with was stunning and I was thrilled.
Julia’s tattoo studio is beautiful, feminine, and edgy, much like Julia herself. She offered to have a private session with me being considerate of the sensitive situation. For the next three hours, she worked her magic. Whenever people see the tattoo they ask me how long and how many sessions. Three hours seems to shock them considering how intricate the work is and the fact that it is entirely shaded in. Did the three hours fly by? Not even a little bit. It was far more painful than I imagined it would be. That’s a sensitive area despite some numbing post-surgery. Scar tissue and bone don’t make for a great mix when it comes to tattooing. People describe it as a cat scratching you. Sure, if that cat is a leopard maybe.
I feel like I have a decent pain tolerance but this scenario tested that theory. I want to be clear about this because if, after reading my story and seeing my photos, you want to go down this path, I would be remiss if I sugar-coated the painful aspect of it all.
Much like having a baby, it was worth it. Every last scratch resulted in the most exquisite piece of art on what was once just a flat chest with two very long scars.
It’s hard to describe what happened next. A transformation of sorts. The way I felt about myself shifted. A scar that signified the end of my body as I once knew it was now replaced by something almost thrilling. I felt powerful, sexy, and the furthest thing from merely a “survivor.” I became happy with my reflection, proud even. Something had changed for the better and it wasn’t about keeping a stiff upper lip. It was about curling those lips into a smile.
Breast Cancer is ugly and traumatic. I know pink is the well-known symbol for this cancer because of its feminine connotations but pink also makes it feel almost romantic. I’m not about to go on an anti-pink rant because it does a great job at raising awareness. My point is that I found some beauty after the ugliness and I want other women to know that this is an alternative.
You don’t have to have reconstructive surgery, and you don’t have to necessarily live with a flat, scarred chest either if you don’t feel good in your skin.
I want people to know that for me, this was the solution I needed and it did everything I wished for. Women just need to see it.
That’s why I stepped forward to participate in Breast Cancer Canada’s (Formerly The Breast Cancer Society of Canada) new ad campaign. In a way, we are both rebranding.
I put it out into the universe that I wanted to show other women a choice they may not have thought of and this opportunity fell at my feet. Now my bare chest will be seen in a commercial, on busses, and on billboards in cities across Canada. I was told I could back out at any time and was made to feel extremely comfortable. My anxiety over what is about to unfold is trumped by the idea that other women dealing with the trauma of a body-altering mastectomy could see a light. If they could feel like I do now, it will be worth putting myself in this vulnerable position.
The campaign is not about mastectomy tattoos, of course. It’s about people thriving after experiencing breast cancer because of life-saving research. Yes, research matters and works and I wouldn’t be here writing this without the incredible, miraculous treatment I had.
I want to thank Breast Cancer Canada for consistently funding brilliant Canadian researchers across the country and allowing me to be me in their campaigns.
If you are currently dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis, these are the people who have your back. They truly want you to survive and thrive.
In the meantime, be a sunflower.
Please consider giving to Breast Cancer Canada.