Mastectomy Tattoos – Blood, Ink & Tears
AKA: My Double Mastectomy Story
Getting inked by someone with skill – and a story to tell – made the whole experience so much more. I could see what a difference going to a “real” tattoo artist made and I was hooked.
Now at the time I got this cover-up done I was going through some major body modifications. The week before I saw Chinchilla I had just had my nipples tattooed on. You read that right. Not “had my nipples tattooed” – like I’ll put a smiley face there or a little heart or something. No. I had them tattooed on because before that I had no nipples. No breasts, either. You see, I had undergone a prophylactic double mastectomy several months before and was now in the process of completing my reconstruction.
Now maybe you saw all the news stories months back about Angelina Jolie undergoing the same procedure (although she got to keep her nipples – lucky girl) so you have heard of this before. Or maybe you or someone you care about has had to face down the same thing and you are dealing with this from the inside. If so my heart goes out to you – it is a damn hard thing to deal with, I know.
So, long story short – my dear sister Sue
was diagnosed with breast cancer at 38 yrs. old. When she first tested positive for cancer her Dr. mentioned right off the bat the dreaded phrase, “Double Mastectomy”. I remember her phone call – her voice choked with tears- as she explained what the Dr. had said. At the time – with her being newly diagnosed and still feeling normal ( it was just a tiny little lump she had found after all ), the thought of a double mastectomy seemed outrageous and unreal. And unnecessary. But what we didn’t know at the time was this; my sister had the BRCA1 gene AKA the “breast cancer gene” (and ovarian cancer, and prostate cancer, and as an extra added bonus sometimes colon cancer – this gene was a real overachiever).
And what it can mean when you have this gene is that your risk for breast cancer is high – like insanely high. Like mine is 85%. And so is your risk for the cancer to metastasize. And its hard to cure. Very hard to cure. It’s basically like that Gary Larson cartoon from the Far Side
But my sister and the rest of us – her family that loved her – didn’t know this at the time. We just figured she would have the lump taken out and get zapped and be on her merry way with some nice “pink ribbon” swag and a good scar for storytelling. Sadly that was not the case. By the time one of her medical team suggested a gene test based on her family history – which was loaded up with cancer – she had already undergone chemo, radiation and a single mastectomy. By the time she talked me into getting MY gene test done and my results came back positive her cancer had already re-occurred behind her collarbone. And by the time I underwent my preventative double mastectomy – at my sister’s urging and for my mother and my children’s sake – my sister’s cancer had returned a 3rd time and metastasized into her brain and spine. She died 3 weeks to the day after my surgery and our dreams of travelling to Spain to show off our newly minted breasts and watching each others kids grow up and being a couple of those little old ladies that hold hands together on park benches – well, all those dreams and so much more died with her.
It’s been over 6 years since my sister died and I never get used to the idea of her being gone.
As for my tattoo journey? This was really my launching point. If you have ever had your breasts surgically removed (which I hope for your sake you have not – it is unpleasant) then you know the next step after they scissor away your lady bits is to, well, put them back. Or not – the choice is yours. I chose to rebuild. I wasn’t planning on my sister passing away – we thought she was on the mend and just had an achy back. We had even discussed her eventual breast reconstruction and thought it would be fun – FUN – to get it done around the same time as mine and then when we were all healed up we would go to topless beaches and wear low-cut tank tops and basically show off our new boobs ’cause we had earned it.
Well now I was on my own and still had months of reconstruction ahead of me. I tried not to look at the ruined landscape of my body. To be honest I was mostly too sad to even pay attention to it. I rarely looked in the mirror and never let anyone – even my husband – see me without at least a tank top on. Except one day weeks after the surgery but when I had still had all my stitches – think “human porcupine”- I was heading into the shower when my 3 1/2 yr. old son caught site of me. He stared for a couple of moments and then looked up at me and asked earnestly, “Shark bite you?”
My heart stayed broken but my body healed and the long process of reconstruction was finally completed culminating in the tattooing of my nipples – kind of the “icing on the cake” if you will. Before they could be tattooed though, they had to be created.
This is the star-flap procedure I underwent. Luckily for me my insurance allowed me to go to Stanford for my surgery and I had the most amazing reconstructive surgeon – Dr. Gordon Lee. Always upbeat, friendly and professional – at the absolute TOP of his field (seriously, the top) with an amazing team of nurses and staff that helped make a shitty situation almost manageable. Plus Dr. Lee let me design my own nipples. Seriously. He grabbed a Sharpie and drew an “X” on my blank reconstructed breast and then asked me what I thought. I thought they were hanging a bit low – so we moved them up a bit. Then he asked me how big I was thinking – gumdrop? pencil eraser? Scars shrink so I went with “gumdrop” knowing they would get smaller over time. About a hundred stitches later (and a brief fainting spell when I got home and realized one of my stitches had slipped and I was now literally soaked with blood – new nipple to navel) I had newly minted nipples and was ready to have the color tattooed on.
Medical tattooing is a strange thing. The machine and the ink are the same but you are tattooed by a nurse in a Dr.s office (pain meds, though 🙂 ) The nurse who tattooed me had regular tattoos herself and commented on how little training she had received for medical tattooing – and how she would like to train with a professional tattoo artist to improve her skills. ( Hey tattoo artists out there – maybe volunteer to help a nurse who does this in your area? ) I chose my flesh tone from what looked like one of those paint chip cards from the hardware store and she just…filled in the blanks. No shading, no line work – just colored me in. And then I was complete. Reconstruction finished. But not really. Now I had scars – inside and out – and wanted to do something about the ones on the outside.
A lot of tattoo artists are asked to cover scars and covering mastectomy scars is especially common. Women who never in their life imagined they would ever get a tattoo go in for some of the biggest, boldest tattoos you can imagine after a mastectomy and the results can be beautiful. Here is my very favorite example
I saw this image -( which went completely viral when Facebook banned it for being inappropriate ; way to go Facebook) and I honestly wished I had gone that route instead. But it was too late; I was all all juiced up with implants and fancy nipples and all I needed now was mastectomy tattoos. (Fun Fact – I had the pleasure of working with Tina on my sleeve and you can read about here, and here, )
The video in Part 1 is the outline and the video in this post is the finished piece. I wanted cherry blossoms to symbolize the death of a loved one – my sister – and the tattoo artist did an incredibly skillful job of covering my scars and making everything look beautiful. She even re-tattooed my nipples for me and they are much improved. Thank you Amber Sanders!
My husband posted these mastectomy tattoos videos as part of my desire to put images of reconstructed breasts out there for – hopefully – other women to see that the results can be very good. In a hysterical sidenote these videos were marked “content restricted” by YouTube and even though my husband appealed it the restriction remains. Why? Who the hell knows – especially when there are other very questionable videos out there that continue to soar in popularity
Which one doYOU think should be age-restricted? Neither, probably. Mad respect to the watermelon crushing lady – that shit is NOT easy – but seriously, WTF YouTube?!
Now I make it my policy to be very free with info about my surgery to any woman who asks. I totally get Angelina Jolie coming out with her story and realistically if she had had her surgery and come out with her story 7 years ago my sister might still be alive because she might have requested a gene test and then learned about her risks and options sooner. It’s always easy to Monday quarterback a tragedy but I do think of that. I’ve been where she is at and believe me – no one goes through this shit to get a boobjob or get extra attention or whatever. No fucking way. So if you are out there Angelina – thanks for being so upfront with your story (and I bet she got some amazing mastectomy tattoos as well!.