Getting a tattoo after breast cancer surgery

PUBLISHED ON: 10 March 2015

Tattoo covering mastectomy scar

Tattoos after breast cancer surgery are becoming more popular. We look at what tattooing involves and why some women choose to have it done.

You may have heard of the ‘tittoo’ movement: based on the idea of having a tattoo for artistic (not medical) reasons following breast cancer treatment. It usually involves having a tattoo to cover a scar caused by breast cancer surgery. It’s becoming more and more popular among women who’ve had breast cancer treatment but what does it involve and is it right for you?

What does getting a tattoo involve?

A tattoo is a permanent mark on the skin made by ink or pigment. It’s also known as body art and can be a way of expressing yourself.

Some women feel it helps them reclaim their body after surgery. It may also help them enjoy looking at a part of their body which is scarred and may have negative associations.

‘I love my tattoos and I have no regret' says Liz Howley from Livingston in Scotland.'When I’m changing or getting ready for bed I see the beautiful tattoos and feel so much better.’

Artistic tattoos shouldn’t be confused with nipple and areola tattooing. Nipple and areola tattooing is a procedure performed by a specially trained doctor or nurse. It involves colouring the skin using micropigmentation which is similar to tattooing. This procedure is usually done after breast reconstruction.

Artistic tattooing involves a tattoo artist inserting ink into the skin using needles or an electric tattoo machine.

‘I love not being able to see my scars' says Ismena Clout who took part in Breast Cancer Care's body image campaign. 'I can wear low-cut tops and am happy to expose the tattoo. Make sure you choose a tattoo that’s personal to you as opposed to something that’s in fashion at the time and you won’t regret it.’

What are the risks?

For anyone getting a tattoo the biggest risk is from dirty needles that can spread diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis. Tattooists should use sterile equipment and fresh needles every time.

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 extremely painful
  • the colour (pigment) fading – this can sometimes happen over time. It’s best to avoid swimming or sunbathing for two weeks after the procedure to reduce the likelihood of this happening. Afterwards if your tattoo is at all exposed use sunscreen on it at all times to help reduce fading.

The tattooed area will be swollen and possibly red but this should go away over time. Your tattoo artist should give you instruction on how to care for your new tattoo.

However if any redness or swelling doesn’t go away and you develop a temperature sore throat or feel feverish you may have an infection. If this happens get medical help as soon as possible as you may need a course of antibiotics. Antihistamines can also help in this situation but it’s always best to speak to your doctor.

‘I mentioned it to my oncologist before and got no warnings' says Ismena. 'I’m secondary so it’s a case of: if it makes you happy go for it.’

Need inspiration?

You may have an idea of what you would like your tattoo to look like. If you’re stuck for ideas on tattoo designs take a look at a gallery of tattoo images from a US charity called P.INK.

‘I went to a local tattoo parlour to suss the place out and check it was hygienic' says Liz. 'I asked for a female tattooist and to be in a private room. They were able to do both of these things. I decided on a floral tattoo. I have since got two further tattoos expanding on the area.’

Tattoo or not tattoo?

Whether to get a tattoo is a big and very personal decision. Some people may feel like their body has been through enough. Others may find a tattoo gets rid of any negative associations they may have with their breast cancer surgery scars.

‘It took courage to make the final decision to get a tattoo' says Liz. 'My husband supported me by getting a tattoo too – luckily he loves his!’

Body image

Regardless of your decision some people struggle to deal with their altered body image after breast cancer.

Breast Cancer Care’s body image campaign aims to give everyone access to the information and support they need to help them cope with altered body image and its legacy after breast cancer.

Ismena Clout who took part in Breast Cancer Care’s body image campaign and provided quotes for this article had secondary breast cancer. She died in September 2014.

Content created March 2015; next planned review 2017

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