I Had a Double Mastectomy at 32—and Turned My Scars Into Works of Tattoo Art

This is how I embraced my new body after breast cancer.

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In January 2017, I was getting ready for my 32nd birthday party and noticed something off with my body. You know when you put your hands on your boobs as sort of a resting place, while you're thinking? I did that, then realized my left breast felt harder than usual.

I immediately went to my neighbor's apartment across the hall. She's a social worker (and still a close friend of mine), so I thought I'd get her opinion. "This might be weird, but can you feel my boob? It doesn't feel right," I asked her.

She felt it, and in her calm, clinical tone said, "You know, you should probably go to the doctor." That wasn't the reply I'd expected.

I was due for my annual physical in March, so I waited until then to get my breast checked out, figuring I would kill two birds with one stone. After my doctor did a breast exam, she told me I needed an emergency mammogram. It's amazing how time stops in moments like that.

My mammogram happened two days after my initial checkup. I remember there was one moment when I caught the doctor looking at my scan. He glanced up to me and gave me this look, and right then I knew I was sick.

My doctor told me I'd need a biopsy based on what they saw on my mammogram. Let me tell you, ultrasound-guided needle biopsies are not fun. The procedure felt like someone was drilling into my left breast. After hours of testing and waiting, I saw a screen showing the biopsy results in the doctor's office and thought, I've seen that in a biology class before. That's what cancer looks like.

I had to wait three days for the final result to come back. I was told I had two types of breast cancer: ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS, and invasive ductal carcinoma, IDC, stage 2. I tend to be a pretty dynamic person, so of course I couldn't just have one kind of cancer, I had to have two.

After the diagnosis, I contacted the radiologist who had done the mammogram, and she asked if I wanted to get coffee. While sitting in the park she told me, "Listen, a lot of people are about to give you a lot of information. And what you need to remember in the process is that these choices are yours."

I think that really changed the course of my treatment. Before cancer, I was a fairly indecisive person. What she said gave me permission to be an advocate for my own health care. I decided I wanted to get a double mastectomy. Six weeks after my breasts were removed, I chose to harvest my eggs. That was a very strange, emotional thing to have to decide so quickly. It was another level of emotional processing, layered on top of the cancer piece.

Once my eggs were harvested, I underwent two types of chemotherapy: taxotere and cytoxan. I lost my hair, and I know everybody talks about it, but it really is pretty terrible. There's lots of difficult things about having cancer, but this one was particularly tough—and all of them are happening simultaneously.

When I was finally done with chemo, I had my breasts reconstructed. During the consultation appointment I was hit with devastating news: the surgeon said he could not reconstruct my nipples. In terms of all of the physical pieces that I had lost or that had been affected—from losing my hair to having surgery to harvesting my eggs—that was the most painful. I went home from my appointment and laid in bed for hours, heartbroken about the news.

I started thinking, OK, what are you going to do? I knew I could get 3D nipple tattoos, as some breast cancer survivors do, but I didn't think that was the answer. My body would never be the same as everyone else's, so why would I get a 3D tattoo which creates the illusion of being like everyone else?

I remembered a friend telling me about tattoo artist David Allen and his work with post-mastectomy tattooing. He'd worked with other breast cancer survivors to help conceal the scarring on their breasts by covering them with beautiful works of art. He recently partnered with ghd, a hot hair tool and hair accessories retailer, to create original tattoo designs for breast cancer survivors. This partnership is part of a campaign that donates $10 to Living Beyond Breast Cancer for every sale of their Ink on Pink hot iron collection.

I knew this was the solution I had been looking for. My friend connected me to Allen, who helped me style a stunning floral pattern for each side of my chest, one that was unique to my personality and taste.

Since my tattoos, I've had a new appreciation for my body after breast cancer. His work has helped me gain my confidence back after all of the body changes I had to go through to fight and treat breast cancer. I was able to become a part of this campaign, where I am now one of the faces of Ink on Pink. While my tattoos were not free, women have the option of getting financial support to help pay for their tattoos from the Living Beyond Breast Cancer organization.

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Getting my tattoos changed my life and the way I view my body. After the surgery but before the tattoos, I would get dressed with my back to the mirror and then check to make sure my scars were showing as little as possible from all angles. A sense of shame and loss washed over me each time I saw the wavy lines of the anchor-shaped scars.

When David tattooed me, the slate that is my body was literally wiped clean of destruction. Now, I am no longer afraid to look in the mirror. I get to walk through my life wearing and being a piece of art instead of feeling deformed. I always want the tattoos to peak out of my clothing!

When I see them, instead of remembering what I lost—my hair, breasts, the time I spent in treatment—I can just be who I am now and where I am in this present time. I get to live my own new narrative instead of reliving what happened to me.

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The amount of love, support, and kindness I have been shown through every step of this process by my family, friends, treatment providers, David, and everyone at ghd gives a new definition to awe-inspiring. I learned that no one gets through this life alone. So if sharing my story can help even one other person, then this crazy rollercoaster that is cancer would have been worth it.

Motivational speaker and researcher Brene Brown once said, "When we find the courage to share our experiences and the compassion to hear others tell their stories, we force shame out of hiding and end the silence." My tattoos are a door to showing this courage and this story. Often, strangers say, "Oh, I like your tattoos," when they see them poking out of my shirt. And it is in this moment I have the choice to say, "Thank you" and move on or "Well, actually, I have them because…"

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