A Work of Art, Not a Work of Cancer

A mastectomy can leave a lasting mark. This breast cancer survivor found her own unique way to make it a beautiful one.
BY Cora Fahy
PUBLISHED February 12, 2019

“Tattooing, when understood in its entirety, must be seen as a religious act. The human being brings forth images from the center of the self and communicates them to the world. Fantasy is embodied in reality and the person is made whole.” -Spider Webb

 
Submitted by Cora Fahy
Submitted by Cora Fahy

Every person’s journey through cancer is as unique as the individuals themselves. My journey started on a cloudy day in April of 2015, when I found the first of three cancerous lumps that would eventually lead to me having a double mastectomy with reconstruction. I say eventually because, like with most people’s cancer journeys, the wind can change, stuff happens and as a result, we need to adjust our sails.

When the dust settled a bit, I would have a total of four surgeries and four rounds of chemo in the space of one year. Compared to others, that may be less, or it may be more. But as I said, we are all unique in the way we go through this, so my decision to do something a wee bit different did not come as a surprise to me or my tribe.

As part of my reconstruction using silicone implants, I was offered the option of nipple reconstruction, which would involve yet another surgery. This did not float my boat and the thought of going under the knife again just did not appeal to me. Frankly, I was “done” at that point. All I wanted to do was heal and find some semblance of normalcy again, even if just for a little while.

I started to research alternatives to nipple reconstruction and what I found filled me with hope. There were pictures and articles on the usual nipple tattoos, or even 3-D versions (which are quite amazing). But when a friend sent me a link to a group called Personal.Ink, I knew I had found MY way back to wholeness.

This group helps organize mastectomy tattoos for women all over the country, putting on an annual P.Ink day every October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month(BCAM). Each year, they pick a different city and provide scholarships and tattoo artists to women who choose this path towards feeling complete again. The information provided by Personal.Ink and other organizations helped me decide to move forward and start researching tattoo artists in my area who might be able to do this for me.
 
Submitted by Cora Fahy
Submitted by Cora Fahy
I knew I had some time before I made a final decision. I needed to heal for at least 16 to 18 months after my last surgery to allow the implant to settle and the scars to be as healed as possible. This gave me plenty of time to investigate different tattoo designs, colors and placement. And boy, did I look at loads of them! I even had an album on Pinterest just for mastectomy tattoo ideas. I liked so many of the ideas I was having a difficult time picking what I wanted as my final design. I decided that this would be a collaboration between myself and whomever I chose to do the tattoo.

I live in a rural setting in Maine, so my options were few and far between. But I finally made my decision after a couple of years. I chose a young woman whom I had met previously in my research travels. She had never done a mastectomy tattoo but had worked extensively on scar cover up tattoos. Her work was beautiful and of course I knew some of the people she had tattooed in the community. But for me, what set her apart was the fact that her own mother and aunt both had breast cancer resulting in mastectomies. Her father had a lumpectomy because they thought he had breast cancer, as well. This woman had an intimate knowledge of what I was going through because she saw her family go through it firsthand. I instinctively knew I would feel safe in her hands.

I sat down with Katie Dube, tattoo artist extraordinaire. As she sorted through the plethora of ideas and pictures I had, she was able to come up with what she saw as the perfect design. She was completely on target with my vision. We started the process in late February 2018 and finished it on August 15th, 2018. Part of me was frustrated with how slow we were going. In hindsight, I now know it was the best way for my body to heal and for my tattoo artist to enjoy and learn from this process. I know that she will continue to be a great resource for women in the local breast cancer community if they choose this path.

A Maine news station interviewed me during one of the tattoo sessions, which has helped to spread the word about mastectomy tattooing. I have since been contacted by several survivors asking questions and researching their own tattoos. Being interviewed by a television crew is nerve-wracking enough—try doing it topless and while being tattooed at the same time! Yikes.
Submitted by Cora Fahy
Submitted by Cora Fahy
 

No one has a problem with the first mile of a journey. Even an infant could do fine for a while. But it isn't the start that matters. It's the finish line.” -Julien Smith, The Flinch


My journey is far from complete—but at least part of my journey finally is. Nothing about cancer is easy. It tears at your soul and lays waste to your body. I’ve spent three years feeling ripped apart, not whole, not complete. At times, I felt physically like a shadow of the person I was—until August 15, 2018.  When it was time to look in the mirror to see the final touches to my double mastectomy tattoo, I faltered and could barely look at myself. I broke down and cried. Those who know me know I do not like to cry in front of people. My tattoo artist cried along with me. We cried together because instead of a work of cancer, what we both saw was a work of art! Her art. Our art. I felt like myself again for the first time in years.

“A tattoo is a true poetic creation, and is always more than meets the eye. As a tattoo is grounded on living skin, so its essence emotes a poignancy unique to the mortal human condition.” -V. Vale

Another upside is if I ever decide to date again, I will feel more than beautiful standing in front of the man that deserves me. I will feel like my own work of art rather than a work of cancer. My tattoo is unique to me— as unique as the journey I am on.
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