There are several options other than breast reconstruction for accepting one’s body after a mastectomy. However, tattooing is never mentioned. It’s very therapeutic, but still not well known. We often see outlandish things on social networks, however it can be beautiful and be a great help for accepting yourself the way you are after breast cancer.
After my mastectomy, my reconstruction and the removal of my prostheses, I had deformities and several scars. I can hardly explain how tattooing has been able to help me. I wish tattooing could be much more accessible, more widely known and more talked about as an option following breast cancer and the impacts it has on the body. It’s certainly not an option for everyone diagnosed, but it’s a shame that it remains so unknown to the public.
I was 36 years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. I had given birth to my third baby a year earlier and was back working as a nurse. At the time, I had pain in my shoulder and felt reasonably well and was receiving physiotherapy treatments. I had also just moved into a new home and was very tired and thought that the accumulation of all this was causing me “normal” exhaustion. One day I found a lump in my breast when I scratched, then discovered enlarged nodes in my armpit.
After an emergency mammogram, I was reassured that the lump looked like a cyst. My breast became more and more painful, and developed a discharge. To be comfortable, I had to sleep with a pillow on my chest. I even had to bring it in the car with me to cope with the drive! It took two months before I had my ultrasound appointment. I thought they were going to do a biopsy and then drain the cyst, but in the end they left the lump in place and inserted a sensor inside. I knew immediately that something more serious had been detected.
I was supposed to hear back in four to six weeks, but the following Friday they gave me an appointment to hear my results: it was aggressive invasive ductal carcinoma. When I heard the diagnosis, my legs buckled and everything seemed to collapse around me.
Things went pretty quickly from then: 16 days later, I had the surgery. I didn’t want to have chemotherapy before the operation, I wanted to have it all taken out immediately. As a nurse, I often saw recurrences and it scared me. This is not an option that is offered right away in our health system. The normal course is to have chemotherapy to shrink the lump and remove the affected part of the breast. For me, that was not an option. So I had a total right-breast mastectomy, with the sentinel lymph node removed for analysis. At that point, my cancer was deemed to be Stage 2 because the lymph nodes were not affected.
Losing my hair was very tough, as well as my eyelashes, eyebrows… In short, all the hair on my body. I couldn’t hide the fact that I had cancer.
My children were 13, five and a year old when I was diagnosed. I missed several developmental milestones for my youngest, because of the disease and treatments.
It was very hard for my children, especially for my boy, who was still a very clingy baby. My oldest, a girl, escaped into drawing. Fortunately, I had the good luck of having my grandmother come to live with us for six months and my father and godmother were also very present and very supportive. My mother was there too, but she was not in good enough shape to help me as much as she would have liked.
After cancer, which is a huge ordeal, you change completely and forever. After all that, I realize that I didn’t come back as energetic and focused as before. The disease damages more or less the whole body, and this remains even after the treatments are completed.
The treatments were a nightmare: my body was seriously weakened. I had to be hospitalized for the first and last treatments. My immune system broke down and I developed a fever. All my mucous membranes were burning: vulva, nostrils, eyes… I felt very nauseous, but I didn’t vomit.
I was tested and I am not a carrier of the gene.
I had reconstruction with textured breast implants about a year and a half after my mastectomy. I worked with plastic surgeons whom I trusted in Quebec City, and that’s what made me decide to do it. I had small breasts so I had to have a breast augmentation on one side and a reconstruction on the other.
After the operation, one breast was too low relative to the other, so I had to have a lift. They realized that my prosthesis had moved; it had turned, presumably when I was massaging my scar.
I had another operation and I was satisfied. All that remained to do was the flap for the nipple reconstruction. I eventually received, as many of us did, a letter from the provincial Ministry of Health advising me that there was a problem with the textured implants and that I should see my plastic surgeon to review my options. I was fed up. I couldn’t stand any more operations.
My immune system was very weak after my last osurgery. I had to stop working again. I had nodules on my fingers, I developed lupus (an autoimmune disease that can cause tissue damage), Raynaud’s disease (causes the smaller arteries that supply blood flow to the skin to narrow, leading to a feeling of cold or numbness) and Sjogren’s syndrome (another immune system disorder with symptoms that can include dry eyes and mouth). My blood tests also revealed variable immuno-suppressive abnormalities.
All this to say that when the surgeon told me that the prostheses had to be removed and new ones put in, I refused. I said: “You’re taking it all out.” I didn’t want any more problems; I felt like there had been nothing but problems since this reconstruction. Besides, I was afraid of losing my job due to being off work.
So I opted categorically for a double mastectomy. I just pictured myself as flat-chested, but I had a real shock when I awoke from the operation.
I was full of scars, deformities and indentations in my chest. With this type of prosthesis, the surgeons had to remove a few centimetres all around, to prevent the risk of any complications. I hadn’t been told that I would be deformed. To illustrate it simply: I was wearing a tank top and my chest was so hollow that the material was all twisted.
The choices available to women are quite limited: external breast implants, the option to reconstruct, or not.
We never talk about tattooing, which I thought was an interesting avenue to explore. I tried to do some research, to look for references. I looked on social networks. Often, what you see is not attractive. I think you have to find an artist you connect with, not just any random tattooist. In my case, the search went on for several years, until I found the perfect one. For me, it was a healing process and it brought me full circle.
Each of the symbols was chosen and had a real meaning for me. My tattoo artist made the effort to understand me, to listen to me and to translate my exact vision into a drawing. The woman on my chest represents me, in tears, devastated by the fear of cancer and death. The howling wolf represents my family, my children, also overwhelmed by fear. The bear represents the inner strength that is often buried deep within us in the face of life’s struggles. The thistles in the poppies represent cancer, evil, possible death. The poppies were not chosen by chance; I wanted them to represent all the women who have died of breast cancer, and of course they had to be the colour pink to match the iconic colour of the breast cancer ribbon. The raven on my right shoulder represents natural law, which in my case was instrumental in my survival, which is why you see it trying to remove the thistles. And on my right arm you see a female fighter and all these animals ready to attack, because my family fought by my side, I myself fought this ordeal with all my strength, I realized that I was much stronger than I thought and that life offered me the chance to continue living. So that’s my story.
Getting a tattoo on my chest in an already abused area is certainly sensitive, but after the surgery I had lost several sensory connections. It felt like numbness, which made the area of my chest difficult to touch (a strange and unpleasant feeling), making me feel nauseous. For a long time it was impossible for me to touch myself, or to let anyone touch me on that part of my body.
The tattoo made me lose this unpleasant feeling entirely. It was as if the sensitive area had awoken and was normal again. My tattooist couldn’t explain this phenomenon to me, but I think that the painful stimulation from the needles simply reawakened my senses. It was extremely positive for me. I think that when you are mentally ready, everything hurts much less because the process is therapeutic.
It is very important, though, to avoid overly long sessions: maximum three hours as this can create an inflammatory process causing a fever and discomfort. An experienced tattooist will tell you this, which is why it is important to choose a good one.
The tattoo is done in small steps, so don’t think it can be done in a day. It all depends on your project of course, but I had three design approval sessions and four tattoo sessions for a total of about 13 hours. There is a meeting to approve what the artist has created for us. And then there are the tattooing sessions themselves. To me, it’s an investment of time and money that is priceless, because I feel healed, free and good about myself. My tattoo artist was so patient with me, as I often changed my mind, but she would touch up the designs as I requested. I really felt that she cared about my project. And that was essential… You need that a bond of trust.
I really wish there was a platform where women could get referrals to tattoo artists for these kinds of projects. It’s not true that everyone accepts themselves as they are after a total mastectomy; that everyone wants a reconstruction. There are many women who suffer in silence like I did before my tattoo.
I searched for a solution for years. I couldn’t take off my tank top to have sex. I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror, let alone be looked at. I ended up remedying this feeling of pain and shame with tattoos. It has quite simply turned my life into a positive one, so if you think it could be the right solution for you, don’t hesitate, and do it. If any of you would like to discuss my tattooing experience, please feel free to write to me.
I would like to thank my amazing tattoo artist, Roseline Lortie from Atomik Tattoo in Quebec City.
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