Cancer: Surgeries and Tattoos
There are many new things that come with a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Everyone knows about the challenges of chemotherapy—hair loss, sickness, immune system changes, fatigue, neuropathy and more. It takes time to recover, but when it all works, we return mostly to normal. The support we get from our loved ones, colleagues, and even our pets keeps us going and gets us through it.
Surgeries are also difficult—managing sedation, healing from the invasive cutting away of the unwanted parts, building back strength, adapting to the changes, all take time and determination. I experienced a massive insult to my body when I had a double mastectomy and DIEP flap reconstruction (they took my belly fat, as in a “tummy tuck,” to build new breasts).
Surgeries leave a person marked. Scars can be small and discreet, or large and obvious. They can be almost unnoticeable or can be constricting and binding. There may be more surgeries to deal with unsightly and intrusive scars. I have many big and little scars on my body but have come to consider them as a part of me, proof of my ability to endure and survive.
This brings me to the concept of tattoos. A friend and I have been having a conversation about tattoos after cancer—it is not uncommon for people to get a tattoo of some kind in honor of finishing treatment and surviving cancer. A scar of choice, if you will, to reclaim your body and confirm the transitions that occurred. It is connected to Renewal, one of The 4 Rs. It can be a form of initiation—a ritual way to acknowledge stepping into a new life.
My friend Terri is also a breast cancer survivor, having had a lumpectomy and radiation two years ago. She has decided to get a tattoo on the scar—to turn the scar into something new—indicating that she is not ruled by the negative side of cancer but can celebrate the new opportunities for growth it brings.
She plans to get a sweet little cat face and paw peeking out of the scar—impish and charming—bringing an immediate smile just to see it. It is a reminder of the importance of our pets to see us through pain and challenge. I suspect Terri’s desire for a tattoo is a defiant statement—“Cancer doesn’t have me—I am winning!”
Years ago, I toyed with the idea of getting a tattoo when I turned 50. I thought it could be a nice way to recognize that milestone. I had a clip art picture of what I wanted—a colorful campfire—and was ready to do it.
I turned 50, but that was when my life blew up. My marriage ended, I left my career, moved back to Minnesota and took over caregiving for my mom, who was in late-stage ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A tattoo was the farthest thing from my mind. Plus, I was now dealing regularly with needles and pain and didn’t need to seek out more of that.
After I completed all treatment and was back to normal, I realized I did get a tattoo at age 50; I had tiny black dots tattooed on my breast to guide the radiation. So, there you go—be careful what you wish for! Anyway, I got a kick out of the irony and humor of that and claimed my tattoo.
Years later, when I was 60, I was still thinking about that campfire tattoo. I had kept the picture of what I wanted, and realized that in all those years, the desire never left me, so I decided to get it. I contacted my niece Jillian and we had a Saturday outing in Duluth to get tattoos together. I was 60, so it was just 10 years late. Jillian got a lovely tattoo of the cycles of the moon, on her breastbone, and my campfire is on my inner right ankle.
The campfire represents several things to me;
• The joy I feel when I’m with family and friends sitting around a fire talking, reminiscing and storytelling.
• I’m a Sagittarius—a fire sign, and strongly resonate with the element of fire.
• I’m a fire walker! I walked on hot coals with other fire walkers and it was a transcendent experience.
And also, “Cancer doesn’t have me—I am winning!”