Many women who experience breast cancer have tattoos after treatment (as well as before).
The women whose pictures appear here have generously agreed to share their tattoos along with some words about their experience.
Links to other resources on mastectomy tattoos can be found at the end of the article.
“This tattoo predates surgery by over ten years. I lost part of the design when my breasts were removed.”
Jennifer Rigano Denbo
“Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a time to remember that all cancers, including breast, are taking the lives of people you know and love everyday. All cancers need a cure….period.”
—Jennifer Rigano Denbo, “PINKtober- “Don’t be fooled by her cuteness.”
“My tattoo is one my daughter and I both got, because we are the strongest people we know!”
Pamela Estep Pierce
“I felt it was appropriate to get an angel tattoo on my right shoulder—a permanent “angel watching over me.” I had the tattoo artist add a small teardrop falling from her left eye to signify that I would never be the same. Amazingly, the teardrop disappeared after a few months! I know sometimes the ink fades over time, but I chose to believe this was a sign from God and the angels that I was going to be okay. And I just celebrated my anniversary of five years cancer-free!”
—Pamela Estep Pierce, 2004, from Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor’s Soul.
Update, October 2014: “It’s okay with me that she’s old and faded because that means my cancer is old and faded too…both are 15 years old on November 3rd. Yes, 15 years! She meant a lot at the time, but I’m ready to forget her…”
“A recent picture of my daughter and I celebrating my 60th birthday and my 15 years cancer free…and our prayer that she always remain without cancer.”
“My passion with tattoos grew after I had my first one when I was 57! I had left an abusive husband of 38 years and finally had my freedom.”
“I decided on a mermaid, which would represent my alter-ego who loves water and the sea in particular. Having caught polio as a baby and grown up wearing callipers I have never been elegant on land, but water is my element and it is there that I feel unbound and free!”
“My hummingbird is symbolic of rising above personal difficulties and hardship.”
“The cross-section of the Nautilus on my right hand reminds me that life is meant to be lived in the present. The chambered nautilus moves forward to a larger chamber as it grows, and the previous chamber is closed off, so it can never move back, only forward towards the future. This one was drawn for me by a friend with the sea done in the style of Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa.'”
“My rainbow coloured peace heart represents my general philosophy of tolerance, acceptance and general live-and-let-live!”
“As for my gypsy lady, she is again a representation of my life philosophy, live, love, laugh. She is also special to me because, although you can’t see it in this picture, she is holding a sunflower and this reminds me of my late father, who was the light of my life, and the sunflower reminds me of his sunny personality. There are also bees in this tattoo, and my dear late mum loved bees – this tattoo is very special.”
“The Hell’s Fairy on a motorbike is how I like to see myself – a sassy attitude riding a cool bike – even if my ‘motorcycle’ is only a mobility scooter in the real world! The fairy has purple awareness ribbons incorporated in rememberance of my mum who died from pancreatic cancer (the purple ribbons are also associated with domestic violence and anti-gay bullying, two issues also close to my heart). My eldest son came up with the title ‘Hell’s Fairy’ when I got my first scooter…He said I wasn’t hard enough to be a Hell’s Angel, so fairy it had to be!”
“Finally my latest tattoo was the line of script running up a scar from my very first surgery at age nine “Blame it on a simple twist of fate”…I have many other scars now, including my mastectomy one, plans are afoot for many more tattoos to cover them too!”
“I got my first tattoo at age 41, about ten days before my mastectomy. I had been conceiving of a tattoo for some time. When I was diagnosed, in the midst of everything, I opted to up the octane and hasten this tattoo—this in spite of having been diagnosed also with Epstein-Barr virus, which resulted in severe fatigue—itself exacerbated by insomnia! It was important to me to bring something talismanic into surgery, and since I could not wear jewelry or carry objects, it seemed smart to get that ink right away. Sometimes people ask whether this tattoo is permanent. I reply, “Only as permanent as I am.” Indeed, the identification of tattoos as a fad or as “something you will regret later” has no significance to me; if I live long enough to have such a regret, I will be fortunate.
“I have been advised never again to put needles in that arm, because of the risk of lymphedema, so I like that the spiral marks the last days when I could accept a puncture there. Andrew, the artist, wanted to touch it up afterward, and I had to say no. That was an important reminder that my life and body, while impermanent, were permanently changed.
“Andrew described the location of the tattoo, on the inner bend of the elbow, as “the ditch”, and he told me it was very sensitive. (I have since heard that term used by fictional IV drug users on Law and Order.) Andrew insisted that I was very brave, though I thought he was overselling that a bit. But I found the sensations interesting, and it helped me prepare for surgery, to have a body modification for which I was awake and could feel my body being punctured in advance of the one for which I would be unconscious and desensitized.”
“My second tattoo came a year or two later. It is the familiar yin-yang circle, but in an antique version that people often do not recognize. The image of the yin-yang conjures up change and interdependence. It reminds me that neither darkness nor light is superior; both are important and valuable. It reminds me that changes of season, of breath, of energy, of mood, of fortune, and of point of view are all temporary and shifting. The only constant is change—something like those rays of sunlight that showed up when I took the photo. They are gone now.
“When I was in the midst of my breast cancer adventure, I was surprised that my doctors were surprised that I opted to forgo reconstruction. I was also surprised that they were surprised that I planned on inking a tattoo on the site of my surgery. Neither of these choices is unusual. There is even an organization called P.INK that matches women who have had breast cancer surgery to tattoo artists. (And, although some think tattoos are also rare for professors and scholars, I have even found documentation on this other subculture of which I am a member. It seems one could trace the use of ink through any number of historical threads and cultural developments.)
“To me, there was also a relationship between forgoing reconstruction and welcoming ink. I did not want to participate in the plastic surgery industry, and the world of tattoo art was much more in line (so to speak) with my values, as well as my aesthetics. The body modifiers were much more accepting of, well, the body, and its changes, than were doctors who build artificial breasts in the place of those we have had removed.
“I have a third tattoo, on my scar. I identified some concepts and images and invited an artist friend to make the design. Andrew inked this one too. He was very thoughtful, even arranging a time when the studio would be closed and quiet. When I got on the table, covering my remaining breast and exposing my scar, he asked, “So, is this a cancer-type thing?”—meaning my missing breast. I said “Yeah.” He seemed unfazed. The sensations from the needle were quite strong.
“Although some women choose to share their chest and scar tattoos, I think of this one as private. I am glad others are more extroverted though.”
Links to Information About Breast Cancer-Related Tattoos
[For informational purposes only; not representing or endorsed by PPATTWBTR. Comments are from Barbara White.]
Note: the articles these links point to may include graphic images (as well as graphic images).
History of Imagery
As breast cancer treatment and the pubic conversations about it have continued, there has been much discussion about women’s appearance and about the appropriateness (or not) of showing post-surgical bodies. The practice of post-mastectomy tattooing is woven into the struggle over the display of women’s bodies.
When I was a teenager, I would see Deena Metzger’s poster of her tattooed mastectomy scar when I went to the feminist bookstore. This portrait seemed unusual (in many ways) back then.
Matuschka, “Beauty Out of Damage,” a photo from 1993 that was featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, illustrating Susan Ferraro’s article “The Anguished Politics of Breast Cancer.” The cover image and article inspired much controversy and many letters to the editor. This response was covered by Mary Schmich in her Chicago Tribune article, “Picture Unleashes A Building Storm.” Indibrella’s blog post, “Beauty out of Damage,” hosts Matuschka, who writes about her “Tattoectomy.”
In May, 2012, Facebook removed Joanne Jackson’s images of the site of her removed breast. Huffington Post: Joanne Jackson, Breast Cancer Survivor, Has Mastectomy Pictures Banned From Facebook.
My response to the above at the time: “Facebook™, is this Shot Obscene?“
Later, mastectomy tattoos were found unsightly by Facebook. Sara Gates, “Facebook Removes Photo Of Breast Cancer Survivor’s Tattoo, Users Fight Back.” (It is said that they have loosened up since. Indeed, one sees many mastectomy tattoos on Facebook these days. More info welcome.)
Soon after, the New York Times made the news again by placing a large picture of a small breast scar (with tattoo above) on the front page, above the fold. This accompanied (or was accompanied by) Roni Caryn Rabin’s article, In Israel, a Push to Screen for Cancer Gene Leaves Many Conflicted. See also Jessica Winter’s article in Slate: No, the New York TimesDid Not Sexualize Breast Cancer.
News & Features
Katherine Locke, “Women choose body art over reconstruction after cancer battle.”
“‘Flat and fabulous’: Topless tattoo selfie inspires cancer survivors.” An article in Today about Barbie Ritzco, co-founder of Flat & Fabulous.
Examples & Resources
Inked Mag, “Inspiring Mastectomy Tattoos.”
Shareen Pathak, “Want a mastectomy tattoo? There’s an app for that.”
A “breast friend” told me about a link to mastectomy tattoo ideas on Pinterest.
Personal Ink—P.INK: “Our goal is to connect breast cancer survivors with tattoo artists who can provide a form of healing that no one else can.”
Melissa A. Fabello, “4 Rules for Talking to Tattooed People Without Disrespecting Their Boundaries,” from Everyday Feminism. [I find the tone of this article somewhat counterproductive, but its “rules” are good practices for interacting with anybody: refraining from uninvited touch and intrusive questions, and so on. It may be of interest to the tattoo-conversation-curious.]
Culture and Scholarship
“Beauty and the Freak,” an interesting episode of CBC’s program Ideas. It considers numerous kinds of body modification, with an unusually wide view and open attitude.
Dwight Garner’s review of Margot Mifflin’s book, Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo.
Not specifically about tattoos, but considering the intersection of breast cancer and appearance is Samantha King’s 2008 book Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthrophy. The University of Minnesota Press’s “Q & A with Samantha King,” part of the press kit for the book, begins with a discussion of the Matuschka/New York Times controversy. [“The images through which the disease was made visible were also transformed: Matuschka’s mutilated, though highly ‘stylized,’ chest, the result of an unnecessary mastectomy performed by an overzealous surgeon , replaced by the hypernormal femininity of Linda Evangelista’s modestly covered yet perfectly intact breasts.” King, Samantha (2008-05-19). Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (Kindle Locations 67-69). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.] The increased attention to mastectomy tattoos is part of a long history of the breast cancer dialogue in the United States.
Phil Ford, “The Tattoed Academic,” in the Dial “m” for Musicology blog.
David J. Leonard about The Inked Academic Body,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education.