REGION — I was surprised in the last few weeks to hear my aunt Eileen say that she’s been looking into getting a tattoo. A breast cancer survivor, Eileen had a mastectomy and …
REGION — I was surprised in the last few weeks to hear my aunt Eileen say that she’s been looking into getting a tattoo.
A breast cancer survivor, Eileen had a mastectomy and reconstruction 15 years ago, followed by a skin infection that required her to temporarily remove an implant. Though I have a distant memory of her being adamantly opposed to them (Eileen denies such an opposition), she had been considering a regular tattoo when she realized something artistic could be made from the canvas of her now-scarred chest.
“I started doing some searching on tattooing nipples [re-colorizing nipples after reconstructive surgery] and then came across people who were tattooing all kinds of designs all across their breasts,” she said.
Mastectomy tattoos—tattoos that cover up mastectomy scars on breast cancer survivors—have gained in popularity in the last few years. About 5.6 million women are survivors of breast cancer in the United States. Women who have had mastectomies and chose implants, but not nipple reconstruction, or who haven’t gotten implants, are the most common candidates for mastectomy tattoos.
That’s because the scarring, and the loss of a body part, can create complicated feelings. Survivors say the art makes them feel a renewed ownership of their bodies.
“It’s just very much an emotional healing process for women,” said Dutchess County tattoo artist Kelly Torres. Torres has been offering mastectomy and areola tattoos—pigmenting the area around women’s areolas to give the appearance of nipples—for roughly the last five years.
Torres is one of a network of artists who provide these tattoos, compiled by the organization Personal Ink (P.ink). The program is a subsidiary of “F**k Cancer,” a nonprofit dedicated to “prevention, early detection and providing emotional support and guidance to those affected by cancer.”
Each October, P.ink tattoo artists throughout the country close their shop doors for one day to offer tattoos solely for breast cancer survivors. This year, that event took place Thursday, October 10, and Torres, along with several other artists, met up at a shop in Brooklyn for a day of tattooing survivors.
“It’s crazy how many women are out there that have gone through this,” Torres said. “I meet women that are in their 20s, I meet women that are in their 60s—everybody’s different—but it’s just that common thread of ‘I don’t feel like my body belongs to me.’”
My aunt told me she doesn’t want to forget her surgery, and it isn’t about dealing with trauma.
“When you have an implant, which looks like they just turned half a melon upside down and stuck it on your chest… there’s no personal attachment to that look,” Eileen said.
Finding a tattoo artist who’s trustworthy and understanding is perhaps more important to breast cancer survivors than regular tattoo clientele. Not only because there are some sensitivity issues on already-scarred skin, but also because women want to know that the person inking them understands why they’re going under the needle.
Torres said that relationship works both ways. She recalls her first client for a mastectomy tattoo, Deanna Cummaro, in 2014. Torres put out a call for survivors, offering a free tattoo to the right person, with the right attitude.
“[Cummaro] walked in and I knew right away,” Torres said. “Her personality was awesome, her outlook on everything was amazing. We did three sessions, we did tattoos over both breasts. She had very large, deep scars… When she was all done, I think I cried, she cried, the photographer cried.”
Inked Magazine ran an online feature about Cummaro, with photos of her beaming as she displays a set of pink and purple wings extending across her chest. A small pink breast cancer ribbon is nestled in the center of the wings.
“I hear it time and time again with survivors that I work with: It’s a matter of feeling beautiful again and feeling whole,” Torres said.
My aunt has been researching tattoo artists, and found one who she thinks will do a good job in the Roanoke, VA area where she lives. She’s considering vines or leaves centered around the scarring on her breasts.
She said she lives with knowledge that her cancer could return.
“If it’s going to come back later on,” she said, “I might as well work with this canvas I have staring at me when I take my shirt off.”