Mastectomy Tattoos: Helping Heal Breast Cancer Survivors

Breast cancer.

Those two simple words can leave everyone with a mutual feeling; 
a jolt in the pit of your stomach and a heart-pounding that’s close to deafening.
   
Unfortunately, most of us have had someone in our lives affected by this disease. Breast cancer impacts more than two million women a year. When a woman survives breast cancer, she can finally breathe again. But, the feeling of relief can be quickly clouded by the feeling of apprehension when she faces how her body has changed. Women have constant pressure on them to look a certain way and live up to a standard of beauty.

When you look in a mirror what do you see? Do your eyes focus on everything glamorous about your reflection, or do they gravitate towards a bump, bruise, or any other imperfection? For most of us, the injuries we get disappear in time and with that we forget that one time we were momentarily different because of it. Women who get mastectomies don’t get to walk away from it with minor marks that dissolve in time. When they get out of the shower, get dressed, or stand in front of a mirror their scars can haunt them, induce insecurities that diminish their want to go on dates, meet new people, or participate in hobbies like swimming. For the longest time women just lived with scars or allowed a surgeon to give them a reconstructive tattoo. But tattoos performed by surgeons often left women feeling worse because they looked unrealistic. This opened a unique opportunity for tattoo artists: mastectomy tattoos.

“Tattoo therapy” might sound like fiction, but there’s a science behind how getting a tattoo makes your body feel better. The pulsating hum of a tattoo machine can be surprisingly therapeutic. When ink hits the skin, there’s an instant rush of adrenaline, along with a release of endorphins because it’s the body’s chemical response to pain. Specifically for these women, the second they see the completed tattoo they feel overcome with happiness. It’s not outlandish to link having breasts and what makes women feel feminine and confident. With modern technology, an artist can execute a 3D nipple tattoo that looks like the real deal. They use a range of colors, shading, and add in minor imperfections that common ones have and the result is unbelievable. And women are not limited on only getting this kind of tattoo; they can get a larger more detailed tattoo if that’s what they want. For each individual, there is an artist who excels at a certain style of body art.

Tattoo artists retain information about how a tattoo heals and how to safely and efficiently tattoo over sensitive scar tissue. They take pride in what they do and risk their reputations every time they do a tattoo. In fact, some surgeons will recommend highly capable artists to their patients. These patients are in an obviously vulnerable state and unfortunately, a few doctors lead them to believe reconstruction should only come from them, but women have to be aware that their choices extend far out of the operating room.

Tattoos by Alex Labeguerie
The tone of each woman’s story starts as melancholy, but by concealing scars their story changes into a tale of triumph. Though many women are wives and mothers with devoted partners, there are others that are single and worried about how to date without the “conventional” look. This plays back to how important having confidence is. Without feeling self-assured, your whole daily life can be affected. It’s been proven that people suffering from low self-esteem don’t go out as much or participate in events and hobbies like they used to; proving low self-esteem can lead you down a path to depression, anxiety, and isolation. It’s as if they’ve completed one battle only to start another one. Tattoos are able to boost self-image and that alone is a crucial factor for good mental health. 

Mastectomy tattoos go beyond helping one person, they are also helping connect groups. On Social Media platforms, like Instagram, we can see women coming together and showing their support for one another. These pieces of body art have brought together not just other artists but survivors from across the world. Additionally, there’s websites and resources designed for survivors to give advice to each other and share their journeys. There are also artists and organizations that donate their services to help women get these tattoos. Pink (P-ink.org) is one organization that sets up an event each year where artist come together and donate tattoos. 


There's a moment before surgery when women are often drawn on with a felt-tip marker by surgeons. For those that haven't experienced it first hand, we can only imagine how disheartening it must feel to be aware of a change, but not in control of that change. We only hope the feeling of getting a tattoo design carefully placed on the skin brings a feeling of hope, a feeling that mends anxiety that was once created by being drawn on before surgery. The truth is, even though they are healed they can’t go back to exactly who they were after what they’ve experienced; but they can go on, being stronger from it. 

Breast cancer impacts 1 in 8 women a year. Now, these survivors can begin new, bright futures with new outlooks on their lives. The ink is essentially the finish line of the healing process. Now they don’t have to get dressed in the dark or throw out the clothes they used to wear, they can be whole and happy. Exhaustion transforms into energy, anxiety is replaced with ease, and the broken pieces are mended. We can’t let our scars define us. We have to define them.

 


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