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How I Learned to Get Naked With Strangers Again After My Mastectomy

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I’d finally done it. Eighteen months after my mastectomy, I got a tattoo to cover my scar. It transformed me from feeling like a victim to feeling victorious, a badass with a bright branch of cherry blossoms across my chest to protect me. Instead of being imperfect — with a deflated chest and a divot (a reminder of the reconstructive surgery that failed) — I was now a piece of living, breathing art.

Cathy Brown the mighty
Cathy Brown’s post-mastectomy tattoo. (Photo credit: Gen “Pistol” Gordon, Guts’n Glory Ink)

One of my great joys had been making occasional pilgrimages to a Korean spa in College Point, Queens, with a handful of close gal pals. One of my great sadnesses (besides being diagnosed with breast cancer and being afraid I was going to die, that is!) was the thought that I might never be able to handle being in a public bathhouse with dozens of other women who, unlike me, had two ta-tas.

But I felt more ready to cross that “spa” line since getting my tattoo. Gen “Pistol” Gordon’s custom-drawn design transformed my scar tissue into a symbol of rebirth. With my permission, Gen posted my new tat on Guts’n Glory’s Facebook page. I posted it on my own Facebook page, Pinterest and “Why We Ink,” a page devoted to memorial and survivor tattoos. The response was overwhelmingly positive. But there’s a big difference between baring my chest electronically and doing it in person.

My moment of truth was yet to come. Could I be naked with strangers?

Knowing my trepidation, my friends, Nadia and Eila, invited me to join them when our mutual friend, Liza, decided to celebrate her birthday with a spa day. I felt incredibly comfortable with these three women. During my health odyssey, they’d been an undaunting support system, offering songs of healing and hope, coming by with Trader Joe’s “puckers” when chemotherapy made my mouth feel as dry as ash and lending a empathetic ear at the other end of the tunnel after chemo. I was ready to be naked with them. But with strangers? That was something else entirely.

On a bright fall day, Eila and I drove toward the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge from our homes in Brooklyn. “I can’t wait to see your tattoo,” she told me, perhaps sensing my trepidation. After we’d parked, paid and stowed our shoes, we moved toward the spa’s communal area where women of all shades and sizes were in various stages of undress.

As we unlocked our lockers with magic wrist bands linked to our credit cards, Eila asked gently, “Are you ready?” I fumbled with my lace bra, hoping my silicone form wouldn’t fall out from the left cup. I wasn’t exactly ready … yet I was.

I prepared myself for the first unveiling — showing Eila my tattoo. Taking a deep breath, I unsnapped. Eila leaned in close. I could practically feel her warm breath on the side of my chest, the place where “Lefty” used to be. The place that was protected by a spray of persimmon-shaded flowers. “It’s so beautiful,” Eila said, her face softening into a grin. And I believed her.

Spa Castle has a strict no-towels policy in the indoor soaking area. In strongly accented English, their booty guards made no bones about coercing ladies to drop their drapes if they tried to cover up. The same-sex hot tub section was a bathing-suit-free zone. Even the flimsy hand towels they offered left little protection.

Eila and I padded barefoot toward the spa pools. Before immersing ourselves, we rinsed off in adjoining showers that sprung from the black tiled walls. Due to the extreme heat, I left my glasses behind in the locker because the lenses would be perpetually fogged. This was a blessing in disguise because if anyone stared at me, my nearsighted self wouldn’t be able to tell. So far, so good.

After a quick scrub, Eila and I chose one of the pools in the medium temperature range from the four different heated mineral soaks. Still sans spectacles, I managed to decipher Nadia by her walk. Liza, the birthday girl, was just behind her. All three of my angels of support were finally here. Circling me, they oohed and aahed over the bouquet tattooed across my chest.

I finally sighed with true relief. Maybe it was the presence of my “sisters.” Maybe it was the relaxing heat of the bubbling spa. But I had suddenly made it past a huge post-mastectomy hurdle.

I had managed to be naked with strangers and lived to tell the tale.

In the end, no one stared. Well, no more than women usually stare at each other, especially naked women: comparing and contrasting, and hopefully concluding, like I did, that we’re all quite lovely and all so very different. 

We’re all beautiful miracles, every last one of us. But especially me. 

Originally published: June 9, 2015
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