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The Tattoo That Gave Me Strength After My Mastectomy

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Two years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram. The news hit me like a left hook. I was shocked, numb, scared. Immediately, I felt like a victim.

Next came a surreal swirl of events: a mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, then a horrible infection that delayed my chemotherapy. The tissue expander they’d inserted to begin the reconstruction process had to be removed. Instead of a perfect fake breast, I had a concave, empty space where Leftie used to be. I looked even more battered and defeated, instead of like the Amazon warrior I needed to be.

But I had more important things to worry about. Like not dying. Even though I was Stage 1 and my chances of survival were 86 percent, I obsessed about my 14 percent chance of not living through this ordeal. I adopted the Alcoholics Anonymous “one day at a time” credo, determined to wake up each morning and make it through the next chemotherapy infusion, the next doctor’s appointment.

By some miracle, I did.

As I write this, I’m 15 months post-chemo. My hair has grown back. I’ve become less afraid and can live my life in more than one-month increments — planning any further than a month in the future used to make me hyperventilate.

But I’m faced with a new reality, with a different woman I see in the mirror. A damaged woman. A jigsaw girl with a missing puzzle piece. A woman with a divot and a jagged scar where her left breast used to be.

I tried hard to convince myself to revisit plastic surgery, but the thought of it made me extremely anxious. Would I get another infection? Would they be able to close me up this time? Would I be able to weather at least two more surgeries and the painful months of the reconstruction process?

My answer was no. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I didn’t want to. But still, there was that broken woman who stared back at me in the mirror with a slouched, almost apologetic posture.

After much soul-searching and deliberation, I decided to turn a negative into a positive. I decided to turn my scar into a badge of survival. I decided to get a tattoo.

I surfed the Internet, combed through Pinterest, Babble and Instagram. While my 14-year-old son suggested a dragon (at least, to him, I was a fierce cancer warrior), I sought something more symbolic. You see, I was diagnosed in the middle of cherry blossom season. Soon after receiving that terrible news, I remember standing in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, looking up into a canopy of vibrant pink and wondering if I’d ever see another spring.

I decided my tattoo would be a cherry blossom branch that not only traced the lines of my scar but embraced it. I just had to find a tattoo artist willing and able to help bring my vision to light. I began shopping in a field that men dominated Besides someone with talent, I needed someone sensitive to what I’d just gone through. I needed a woman.

I found just what I sought in the skilled hands of Gen “Pistol” Gordon of Guts’n Glory Ink in Rosendale, New York. I knew it the minute I walked into the shop, which was bright, airy and inviting. Maybe it was Sagan, the cool pooch who stood guard. Maybe it was Gen herself, a School of Visual Arts graduate and self-described nerd, who resembled Bettie Page’s adorable, slightly bookish younger sister. Maybe it was the way Gen looked at my scar without disgust or the way she touched me, softly yet solidly. I was no longer a cancer victim. To Gen, I was a flesh canvas that she could transform into something beautiful.

A year and a half after my diagnosis, I began that transformation. Gen created an exquisite custom-drawn cherry blossom branch, using the pictures she’d taken with her iPhone for reference. Gen transferred the design onto a stencil and gently pressed the stencil to my chest, warming it with her hand so it would take better. When she began tracing the outline with her tattoo needles, I felt little pain — more than 18 months later, my scar was still numb. What I did feel was a metamorphosis.

I thought I would cry; I didn’t. Maybe I’d cried enough. Maybe I was done crying.

After the first tattoo session, Gen and I were only halfway done. She didn’t want to overly traumatize an area of my body which had seen enough trauma. A bold black outline masked my scar, snaked around it, defied it.

Even with my tattoo half finished, I felt differently about myself. Maybe it was my imagination, but I began walking taller. I began to feel more sensual. I had a secret under my shirt that few people besides my husband, me and Gen would probably ever see in person — but it made me feel almost whole again.

cathy 2

A month after my surgery, Gen finished my cherry blossoms. I’d turned 55 a few days earlier, marking two birthdays since my diagnosis. It seemed a fitting gift to myself. I stared in disbelief at the reflection in the tattoo shop’s mirror. A strong, yet delicate branch, bursting with persimmon-colored flowers caressed my mastectomy scar, symbolic of my rebirth. It gave me strength. It gave me ownership. It gave me hope.

People tell me I’m an inspiration. That I’m brave. That I’m awesome, cool and gutsy. Mostly, I tell them I’m a little bit vain. I just got tired of looking at my scar in the mirror — and decided to do something about it.

Images via contributor

Originally published: April 1, 2015
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