Artistic tattoos after breast cancer surgery

1. Tattoos after breast cancer surgery
2. Why get a tattoo?
3. When can I get a tattoo?
4. What happens when you get a tattoo?
5. Can you tattoo over scar tissue?
6. What are the risks?
7. Where should I get a tattoo?
8. How much will it cost?
9. Can a tattoo be removed?
10. Getting tattoo ideas and inspiration

1. Tattoos after breast cancer surgery

Some people consider having an artistic tattoo on their breast or chest after breast cancer surgery. This could be after breast conserving surgery, a mastectomy or breast reconstruction. Sometimes this is referred to as a mastectomy tattoo or tittoo.

Artistic tattoos are different to nipple and areola tattooing which are carried out by a doctor or nurse who has had specialist training.

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2. Why get a tattoo?

People consider having an artistic tattoo for a variety of reasons, including to:

  • help them to feel more confident after breast cancer treatment
  • mark what they have been through and create something personal
  • cover or disguise a scar

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3. When can I get a tattoo?

Before getting a tattoo your operation sites need to be completely healed. This may take up to a year but it can be longer. You should have also finished any chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment.

Check with your treatment team if you’re considering getting a tattoo.

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4. What happens when you get a tattoo?

A tattoo is a permanent mark on the skin made by ink or pigment. Dyes are injected using needles directly under the skin, piercing the skin over and over again until the tattoo is drawn. No local anaesthetic is given and the process can be painful.

Before having a tattoo, the tattoo artist should ask some health questions. This should include asking about any allergies or any health conditions you might have. They should also make sure you have all the aftercare advice and instructions needed to care for your tattoo.

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5. Can you tattoo over scar tissue?

Most tattoo artists will incorporate any surgical scar into the design and shape of the tattoo, rather than actually inject ink into it. This is because scar tissue is different to normal skin and less porous meaning the colour and definition of the ink can be affected.

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6. What are the risks of getting a tattoo?

For anyone getting a tattoo the biggest risk is from dirty needles that can spread diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. Tattoo artists should always use sterile equipment and fresh needles.

Other risks include:

  • infection – see below
  • allergy to pigment – make sure you have a patch test first
  • changing your mind – it’s possible to get tattoos removed but it’s expensive and can be very painful
  • the colour (pigment) fading – this can sometimes happen over time. It’s best to avoid swimming or sunbathing for two weeks after having a tattoo to reduce the likelihood of this happening. You can use sunscreen on your tattoo to help reduce fading

The tattooed area will be swollen and possibly red but this should go away over time.

If any redness or swelling doesn’t go away and you develop a high temperature or feel feverish you may have an infection. If you think you have an infection contact your GP (local doctor), nearest urgent care centre or A&E as soon as possible as you may need a course of antibiotics.

Can tattoos cause lymphoedema?

It’s not known if having a tattoo on your breast or chest may increase the risk of developing lymphoedema in that area. This is a buildup of lymph fluid in the surface tissues of the body which causes swelling. It can be controlled but may not completely go away. It’s caused by damage to the lymphatic system which may happen during breast surgery or radiotherapy. It’s not clear why some people develop lymphoedema and some don’t but it’s thought infection and further damage to the lymphatic system may play a part.

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7. Where should I get a tattoo?

It’s a good idea to visit a few tattoo studios and watch the artists work. That way you can see what’s involved, how clean the studio is and get an idea of whether the artist will be able to create something you want. You can also ask to see examples of previous work. If you know anybody who has a tattoo, ask them where and how it was done and if they are happy with  the result.

If you would like a female tattoo artist and would prefer to have the tattoo done in a private room you can ask if these are possible.   

Check that the person who is doing the tattoo is registered and has an up-to-date health and safety certificate. Anyone who carries out tattooing should be registered with their local authority. You can contact your local authority to check this.

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8. How much will it cost?

The cost of a tattoo will vary depending on the artist and the size of the tattoo. Some artists charge by the hour. It’s worth contacting several places to get an idea of how much having a tattoo might cost.

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9.Can a tattoo be removed?

It’s possible to have a tattoo removed using laser technology, but this process can take several visits a few weeks apart and can be expensive. It can also be painful and cause problems to the skin, such as making it red, swollen and inflamed. The pigment (colour) of the skin can also change.

Sometimes it’s possible to change the tattoo by covering the unwanted design with another tattoo.

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10. Getting tattoo ideas and inspiration

If you would like some inspiration for a tattoo design you can look at the board on our Pintrest site. The US charity P-ink.org has a gallery of images that may also give you some ideas.

You could also have a look at our online Forum and see if anyone has had a tattoo and where they had it done, or start your own thread.

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Last reviewed: October 2017
Next planned review begins 2019

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Please note that we cannot respond to comments. If you have any questions about breast cancer please contact the Helpline on 0808 800 6000.

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