1. A mastectomy is a surgery that involves total removal of one or both of the breasts.
Many breast cancer patients get mastectomies as part of their treatment. Some people also choose to get mastectomies electively — for example, as a preventative surgery if they have the BRCA genetic mutation that greatly increases their odds of developing breast cancer (Angelina Jolie made this choice).
3. P.ink (Personal Ink) is a charitable initiative, created by the ad agency CP+B, that connects mastectomy patients with qualified tattoo artists.
For two years in a row, it’s hosted P.ink Day events, where it connects mastectomy patients with qualified tattoo artists who donate their time and services free of charge. In 2013, 10 patients received tattoos; in 2014, P.ink expanded the event to 12 cities in the U.S. and Canada, and 38 patients received tattoos. P.ink accepts donations throughout the year to help pay for survivors to receive tattoos on a first-come, first-served basis.
For this story, BuzzFeed Life spoke with several women who participated in P.ink Day events about their experiences.
Here’s some of what they had to say.
4. “The tattoo gave me back my sexy, my swagger.” —Monica Hendricks, 52
Here is a picture of Monica and her tattoo artist, Michelle Tarantelli. Monica’s tattoo is in progress in this picture.
After her bilateral mastectomy for breast cancer, Monica got reconstructive surgery. But the surgery failed — “My body kept rejecting the implants,” she told BuzzFeed Life. She ended up having to get emergency surgery to have the implants removed. That’s when she came to terms with the fact that, at age 50, she wouldn’t have breasts ever again. It was a big realization, and one that took her some time to get used to.
“Before breast cancer, I was a double-D — a member of the Dolly Parton crew,” she said. “I was rocking them. I enjoyed my breasts and nipples in the past, and I had plans for them in the future. And then breast cancer snatched them from me. After the surgery, it looked like someone took an eraser and erased my nipples. I would look in the mirror and I felt unbalanced.”
“This is a hard thing to talk about. Probably for every breast cancer survivor who’s had a bilateral mastectomy. Yes, we are appreciative that we have life. We are appreciative that God spared us. But also we deal with a body image in the mirror that does not reflect something that we’ve grown — sometimes 50 years — accustomed to. And it takes some time for us to adjust to this new body image. But even in this new body image there’s this feeling of a lack of feminine wholeness that is difficult to articulate. Especially because everyone keeps saying, But you’re alive!”
Monica said she intentionally looked for a design that felt feminine and soft to her. “Since I had no breasts, the important thing for me [in choosing a tattoo] was that whatever I put on my breasts, I wanted it to look soft,” she said. “I didn’t want a tribal pattern, I wanted a flowing shaded ribbon, because it’s a softer look.”
Monica said the tattoo helped her love what she sees in the mirror again. “The tattoo was part of my healing and restoration process,” she said. “The tattoo gave me back my balance, and gave me back that sense of who I am as a woman. The tattoo gave me back my sexy, my swagger. “
6. “Each flower represents a person I feel I’m on this journey for.” —Megan Hartman, 31
Megan, pictured above, found out that she carried the BRCA gene that increases your odds of developing cancer. At age 27, she decided to get a preventative double mastectomy. She got reconstructive surgery after her mastectomy and was planning to get nipple tattoos, but then her surgeon’s office lost their tattoo artist and her plans were delayed.
She became more interested in getting an artistic tattoo, rather than tattooed nipples, when she saw an amazing picture of one on Pinterest. So she went to a local tattoo shop in Knoxville, Maryland, and worked with an artist named Tiffany Kaetzel to create the tattoo seen above. Later, P.ink connected her with artist Joy Rumore, who tattooed her other breast with flowers.
“Each flower represents a person I feel I’m on this journey for,” Megan told BuzzFeed Life. “I have a flower for my husband, a flower for my mom, and a flower for my son and daughter. My mom’s flower is surrounded by forget-me-nots because she passed away from cancer. A friend asked me: Where’s your flower? I hadn’t thought about it, initially — I’d been thinking that I had made this decision because I wanted my kids to have a mother forever. But I did it for myself, too. I wanted to live. So I picked the aster flower for the side that Joy did for P.ink. It’s a bunch of aster flowers and a quote.”
Above, artist Joy Rumore works on Megan’s tattoo.
“I love the tattoos. I really do,” Megan said. “I’m an athlete and I get changed in the women’s locker room on a daily basis. I noticed that after the [mastectomy and reconstruction] people stared. Not in a rude way, more like a confused or curious way. I’d see them do double-takes. It’s not normal to see someone without nipples. And at the time I was only 27, so that made it almost more confusing — the thought of breast cancer didn’t resonate with most people because of my age.
“But now that I have the tattoos, if you notice that I don’t have a nipple, great, you’re really intuitive about detail. But most people don’t even notice that — they just see that I have tattoos. And then it becomes a talking point. People will say I like your tattoos, and I can explain that they’re mastectomy tattoos, and it’s because I had this gene mutation. I’d say, you know how Angelina Jolie had the BRCA gene [and got the preventative mastectomy]? Well it happens to real people too.”
8. “I knew I wanted a phoenix, as a symbol of rebirth.” —Alia Denny, 55
“When I was a teenager in the ’70s, I saw pictures of a woman who had a double mastectomy and had tattooed her chest rather than have reconstruction,” Alia told BuzzFeed Life in an email. “I thought it was lovely, and at the age of 16, decided I would do something similar if I lost my breast or breasts.”
In 2007, she had to have her left breast removed. She chose not to get reconstructive surgery following her mastectomy, and she reached out to P.ink to see if they could help connect her with a tattoo artist. “I have one other tattoo that I got 18 years ago, and hadn’t had time, money, and an artist at the same time since. With the donations of P.ink and the artists, I was able to get a marvelous piece of work that I would have had to get in stages, all done in one day.”
Above, Alia and her tattoo artist, Phill Bartell, admire her phoenix tattoo in the mirror.
“I am not really an artist,” Alia said. “I knew I wanted a phoenix, as a symbol of rebirth, but I did not have a specific design. I met with Phill, my tattoo artist, a couple of weeks before the [P.ink Day] event, and he drew directly on my chest. We talked about what I had in mind, and I trusted his artistic skills to come up with something wonderful, which he did. He used clear contact paper to take a copy of the rough sketch from my chest, and worked on it from there. He came up with a marvelous bird.”
“Here I am waving to my daughter after the tattoo,” Alia said. “Exhausted, but exhilarated.”
11. “It’s a personal choice. But if you’re weighing the decision, and it’s something you think you want to do… Do it. It will change your life, and it will change your perspective.” —Jennifer Roush, 40
After she went through her double mastectomy, Jennifer knew she didn’t want to get reconstructive surgery. “I was going to be going through chemo, and I didn’t want the extra stress, extra weight on my body,” she told BuzzFeed Life. “I didn’t want to put my body through anything that wasn’t necessary.”
After her scars healed, she began to think about exploring a tattoo or coverup option. When she heard about P.ink and reached out, they asked her if she wanted to participate in P.ink Day 2014.
Jennifer worked with a tattoo artist named Darren Hall, who created a claddaugh design for her, per her request. “I chose it because I really believed in its meaning, it was something really special to me growing up as a little girl — I had all the claddaugh jewelry,” she said. “It stands for love, loyalty, friendship.”
And she loves how it turned out: “I’m still really blown away by it,” she said. “I love it. And the compliments I get for it are just amazing. There was this elderly lady, maybe 70 or 80 years old, who came up to me and just loved it — she was in awe of how beautiful it was.”
12. “It’s about taking control back after a situation where you had absolutely none.” —Karen Richards, 54
Karen was first diagnosed with breast cancer 13 years ago, and she got a number of small tattoos at the time — “Breast cancer got me into motorcycling, and I figured as a motorcyclist I ought to have a few tattoos,” she told BuzzFeed Life. After her mastectomy she got reconstructive surgery, and opted for tattooed nipples, but she was never satisfied with the results. “The nipples were never right; I had those done three or four times and just gave up,” she said.
Then about a year ago she saw a P.ink video about a woman named Molly who had gotten tattoos over her scars. “I was just so moved by the whole idea of using tattoos as a healing tool for survivors,” Karen said. “I figured someday I might get that done, but I was thinking I might want to get my reconstruction tweaked here or there. It was a someday thing. But then I got a call or email from P.ink asking if I wanted to do this. Opportunity knocked.”
Pictured above: Karen and her tattoo artist, Friday Jones.
Karen and Friday did not actually have a plan for what the tattoo should be going in to the P.ink Day event. “I’m a project manager, I’m a planner,” Karen said. “She said she just wanted to free-hand on me, and I had to really kind of catch my breath and go… OK. I’m just going to trust, and I’m just going to believe that this is going to be amazing.”
The final design ended up featuring numerous personal elements that all had significance for Karen — she’s been involved in animal rescue organizations for years and has black cats; she’s a Cancer sign (represented by the moon); and she had just moved to Colorado (represented by the state flower, the columbine). And she ended up absolutely loving the art. “If I could go topless all the time, I would,” she said. “I just love it.”
Karen said the experience has been incredibly empowering: “It’s about getting control back,” she said. “It’s about taking control back after a situation where you had absolutely none. And having a third option… It’s empowering. It’s incredibly empowering. When I walk around and nobody knows it’s there, I always know it’s there. It was transformational.”
If you are curious about what a mastectomy tattoo might look like on your body, P.ink created an Inkspiration app to help (it’s only available on iPhone for now). It comes with a collection of tattoo designs for inspiration, and it lets you upload your own photo (or select a body type) so that you can see what the tattoos might look like on your own chest. Click here to learn more.