Why I chose to get a mastectomy tattoo

PUBLISHED ON: 2 November 2017

When Liz decided to cover her mastectomy scar with a tattoo, she didn’t know where to begin. Her tattoo artist Shirley helped Liz restore her love for her body.

Liz's story

Liz's mastectomy tattoo design

I couldn’t believe I had cancer. I was so sure they were wrong.

My breast cancer was picked up at a breast screening when I was 64. I had no obvious symptoms, no reason to suspect anything was wrong. I was sure that when the tests went to the pathology lab they would discover there’d be no cancer there at all. Of course, I was wrong.

When they told me I’d need a mastectomy I was still in shock. I had surgery aged 65, and chose not to have a reconstruction. I wanted my body to heal as quickly as possible, and didn’t want it to go through any more trauma.

I’d never thought about getting a tattoo

My surgeon had done a great job and the scar was very neat, but I didn’t like looking at myself in the mirror. I didn’t like undressing in front of my husband, or having a shower or looking at myself.

About five years later I was watching a programme about tattoos. A young woman came into the studio to cover up scars she had on her stomach. It made me sit up and think, ‘Oh! I could do that!’

In my final check up with my surgeon I asked if it would be ok, if a tattoo would do me any harm or be detrimental to my progress. They said no, not at all, go ahead.

I met Shirley, and everything fell into place

It took a lot of courage to go through the studio doors! My husband came with me for support. I met Shirley in the first studio I visited.. I wanted it to be nearby in my local town, Bathgate in West Lothian, and for me it was important to have a female artist. I spoke to Shirley in a private room, and it started from there.

Shirley hadn’t done a mastectomy tattoo before, but she told me to leave it with her to do some research and make sure nothing would be harmful. I was so impressed at how seriously she took it.

Finding a design

I originally had an idea to put daisies on and around the scar. When I came back to the shop Shirley had drawn up a beautiful cherry blossom design - I loved it.

The colours reminded me of spring time and new beginnings. It’s a bit of a cliche, but to me that was something lovely.

I won’t say it wasn’t painful, but no worse than dental treatment! As soon as the needle stopped you didn’t feel it anymore. Across the breast bone was probably the sorest, but it was still ok.

I ended up going back to add some vines around the flowers, and eventually some butterflies on my shoulder and more cherry blossom on my foot. I wanted everyone to be able to see the gorgeous work Shirley had done! My husband even ended up getting two Elvis portraits on his arm in the same studio, so now we both have tattoos.

I felt different immediately

I no longer see one lop-sided breast. My eyes now go to my tattoo and that’s all I see, lovely flowers. It makes me feel so good. I’m now 76 and I think that’s wonderful, I think I’m so lucky to have it.

Shirley's story

Shirley tattoing

Liz's was my first mastectomy tattoo

When I first spoke to Liz, my main thoughts were more technical. How bad was the scar tissue? How much was there, and what kind of design was she thinking of doing?

No-one else at that time was working with this kind of scar tissue. I was the only female tattooist in the shop and it was a very ‘male’ environment, and perhaps this put women off asking.

I wanted to turn the scar into something positive

Surgeons are saving lives through surgery, but women must go on to live with the loss of their breasts, and sometimes a horrendous scar.

Since Liz’s tattoo I’ve done done more for women with mastectomy scars. By adding pretty patterns or designs it changes how they look at the area, and the way they feel about themselves.

Scar tissue varies from person to person

Generally, a mastectomy or surgery scar tends to be wider and longer than other types of scar, which can make covering them a lot trickier.

Scar tissue also doesn’t heal in the same way as non-scar tissue, so it may absorb the ink when tattooed or it could reject the ink, leading to a patchy tattoo. It can also swell and bleed more than fresh skin, and sometimes people feel tattooing scar tissue is more sensitive.

Bearing these in mind, it’s important to find an artist who will do proper research around your particular scar, and to speak to your doctor before you make any decisions.

Liz and Shirley’s 5 tips if you’re thinking about mastectomy tattoos

  1. Get the all-clear from your doctor first.
  2. Research the artist and their studio. Check if they have experience and knowledge of mastectomy scars.
  3. If it makes you feel more comfortable, ask for a woman to do your tattoo.
  4. Do some research around the style and design of your tattoo. This will help the artist create something that’s right for you. Find inspiration here.
  5. Finally - if you really want it, go for it!

If you’re thinking about getting a mastectomy tattoo, it’s important to speak to your doctor or surgeon first. Read more about getting an artistic tattoo after breast cancer surgery.

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