Personal Stories

Denise's Story

I was diagnosed in August 2009, at age 57, with Stage II invasive ductal carcinoma in my right breast, with no lymph node involvement. I had eight cycles of chemotherapy followed by a lumpectomy, and the results came back without clean margins on three sides of the "lump". My options were another lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy, or a mastectomy. My breast was not that big to begin with and I was warned that if I had a second lumpectomy and radiation, my right breast would probably be significantly different in size and appearance from my healthy breast. I chose the mastectomy and, as luck would have it, the lab results showed there had been no more cancer left in my breast. It was very upsetting to think that I wouldn't have needed the mastectomy, but on the plus side, I did not have to have radiation therapy. I also gained the peace of mind I wouldn't have had if I had gone with another lumpectomy.

From the start, I knew I didn't want to have reconstruction. In fact, my breast surgeon had to twist my arm to get me to go to a consultation with a plastic surgeon so that I could at least be fully informed on that option. The consultation only confirmed my feeling that reconstruction was not for me. After everything I had been through, I just wanted them to leave me alone! I had been super healthy and very fit when I was diagnosed and all I wanted was to return to my old self as quickly as possible. I didn't see how that would be possible if I let a plastic surgeon rearrange my muscles and tissue, or possibly insert an implant, so I could have an artificial breast. Instead of a new breast, I decided I would get a tattoo. It would be my first.

The physical therapist I saw for several weeks after the mastectomy told me that it was necessary to wait at least a year before putting a tattoo over a scar because scars take a long time to settle into their permanent state. When it had been almost a year, I visited a tattoo artist who had been recommended by three different people I knew. She told me that I must wait another year because scars that are newer than two years often won't hold the ink. I was extremely disappointed as I was very eager to have something (anything!) to fill that big blank space full of scars next to my left breast.

As another year was passing, I began to wonder and worry if a tattoo would be a mistake. I worried about the ink and I worried about the possibility of lymphedema. I spoke to my breast surgeon, who from the start had been a big proponent of my tattoo idea, and she reassured me that I would probably be fine and was not the body type that typically is most at risk for lymphedema. I also did a lot of Googling on the subject and was surprised to find there wasn't much information at all about tattoos over mastectomy scars. As the two year mark approached, my worries got the better of me and I decided I wasn't going to do it. But as the weeks passed, I became more and more depressed and started to hate seeing myself in the mirror. Finally, I had enough of that and I summoned my courage and decided I would go through with it after all.

I had always intended to get a spray of beautiful flowers since I'm an avid gardener, but shortly before I was to meet with the artist, I had a kind of epiphany about how wonderfully a peacock in profile, with the tail down, would fill the space. The artist, Tracey Morse, who is an avid bird lover, agreed, and we came up with a great design.

I was warned that it would be painful and it was. I thought the pain wouldn't be too bad because I was numb over part of the area, but I was wrong. Those were some of the most painful areas, as well as over the scars. Curiously, the process seems to have reawakened some of the nerves because I'm no longer as numb. I was probably lucky it didn't make me super-sensitive as some women report after a mastectomy. (That was something I hadn't even worried about when I was in my worry phase.)

As painful as it was, it was only painful when Tracey was applying the ink. When I would need a break, she would stop and so would the pain. Afterward, there was no pain at all. I followed her aftercare instructions and the tattoo healed beautifully. I wasn't allowed to sleep on it for two nights and couldn't wear my breast prosthesis until it had completely healed, but after about five days, it was healed.

Tracey did virtually the whole tattoo in four hours. I should probably have broken it up into shorter sessions but I was really anxious to just have it done. I went back a couple of weeks later and she did a touch-up, adding a little more detail and a little more purple. That lasted about 45 minutes.

It is hard for me to describe just how much I love my tattoo and how happy I am to have gotten it. Every time I look at myself now, I admire the beauty of this bird and the balance it has brought back to my appearance. The psychological lift has been incredible. I feel so lucky, too, that I found such a great artist in Tracey, who was able to give me such a stunning tattoo.

One of my friends asked me if I had named my peacock. At that point I hadn't, so I began to ponder. After thinking about it for a while, I decided I would call him "Lemonade," as in, "when life hands you lemons . . . "

You can see a photograph of Denise's tattoo by clicking here.