What Cancer Survivors Should Know About Tattoos

Some cancer survivors mark the end of their treatment by getting tattoos, but could that body art cause potential health risks? Here a cancer survivor — who has more than 10 tattoos — shares her perspective.

As a teenager, I wanted a tattoo. I don’t remember when the thought first entered my mind, but it must have been during my rebellious years. At the age of 15, I mentioned the desire to my mother. She went ballistic and said, in her finest Southern drawl, “You’ll get a tattoo over my dead body!” I knew she meant what she said so I never mentioned wanting a tattoo again, but secretly kept the thought tucked in my heart. One day, when old enough, I was going to get that tattoo.

As life would have it, time went by and I forgot about the tattoo. I began raising a family and was busier than ever. One day, I was driving and noticed a bright yellow building with a sign that caught my eye. The sign said simply, “Tattoo Parlor.” Instantly, I pulled into the parking lot.

At the time, I was 51. Though scared to death, I entered the building. On the walls inside, there were posters of hundreds of images called “flash.” When I asked why they were called that, I was told “flash” was a term derived from a time when the art of tattooing was considered an elicit practice and artists had to work quickly to perform their work.

I felt out of place in the shop flipping through hundreds of tattoo images trying to decide what to put on my body. When the shop manager approached, asking if he could help, I felt my cheeks burning with embarrassment. This good-looking young guy with both arms tatted up waited patiently as I tried to decide.

I’m sure he was sizing me up as I picked out a beautiful hummingbird on a flower. He probably thought I was having a midlife crisis and had something to prove. It was evident, as I looked around the shop, I wasn’t remotely close to his typical clientele who were millennials, but he was gracious and kind.

We walked back to a room where he cleaned my calf with alcohol and gently shaved it. I watched as he readied his workspace with various cups of ink, a tattoo machine, and several needles. Before he started to work, he donned gloves and covered each piece of machinery in a plastic sleeve.

He did a test run with the needle, so I’d know what to expect. As he pressed the needle to my skin, I believe he expected me to cry out as he began to work but that wasn’t the case.

As he worked, we made small talk. I sat completely still for over an hour letting him mark my skin with permanent ink. It felt amazing and I was so glad to be fulfilling my teenage dream.

That day was a memorable milestone and who knew tattoos could be addictive? I returned to the tattoo parlor many times after that initial visit for more ink.

About six years later, I found myself in the shop again. At that visit, the manager greeted me as an old friend. We’d bonded through previous visits. When asked what brought me in that day, I explained I needed a memorial tattoo. I’d shared, a year earlier, that I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer and hadn’t been in to see him while I recovered from having both breasts removed. I talked about my journey and brought him up to speed about my treatment.

He was intrigued about all I’d experienced, especially the radiation treatments and was shocked at the number of treatments I’d endured. I explained it wasn’t all seriousness though and told him how I’d laughed when the technician asked to place six tiny blue tattoos on my chest explaining they’d be used to help with placement under the linear accelerator.

At the age of 63, I’m no longer a tattoo virgin but now I’m considering a different kind of tattoo. I want to cover a long horizontal scar across my chest where breasts once resided. That scar is a painful reminder of what cancer stole from me. But my years of fighting cancer have caused me to question whether tattooing is safe.

According to research, many women choose to cover their scars with works of art because it provides a sense of empowerment and may affect their feelings of femineity.

But there are some important things to consider before having scars tattooed and these are some popular questions often asked:

When is the best time to get a tattoo after breast cancer surgery?

According to several recent studies, the recommendation is to wait until scars have completely healed and chemotherapy/radiation treatments are complete. This can take months or may even take a year or longer. Some patients with breast cancer are at higher risk because of compromised immune systems, fragile skin, and even secondary issues like lymphedema.

How do I choose a safe tattoo parlor?

Always check for sanitary conditions. Since tattoo needles pierce the skin, cleanliness is vitally important. Some tattoo inks contain dangerous metals such as mercury or lead that can remain in the body for many years and are a potential health hazard. Recent research identified toxic metals from tattoo ink circulated into the immune system via lymph nodes. This study, performed on tattooed corpses, revealed elevated levels of aluminum, chromium, iron, nickel, and copper along with highly toxic levels of cadmium and mercury in one of the donor’s nodes. With tattooing, there is always the risk of a possible infection, allergic reaction, or contracting a disease such as hepatitis or tetanus.

What does getting a tattoo feel like?

Tattoos are done without anesthesia and are performed with a variety of small, very sharp needles. Depending on the skill level of the artist, they can be quite painful or barely felt. There are areas of the body that are more sensitive than others. Less painful areas like calves, upper arms, thighs, and places with more muscle mass tend to be less sensitive. Areas with thinner skin, like the tops of feet are extremely sensitive.

What kind of care do tattoos require?

Tattoos must be kept clean and dry. Usually, the artist will recommend washing with an antibacterial soap and applying a thin layer of antibiotic ointment daily until the tattoo has scabbed over.

Some tips to keep in mind when considering a tattoo to celebrate the end of cancer treatment:

  • Tattoos are permanent and can only be removed with laser technology.
  • Talk with the tattoo artist beforehand and make sure he/she is comfortable tattooing over scarred tissue. Scars present challenges some artists may be unfamiliar with.
  • Studies are inconclusive on the health risks so proceed with caution. The decision to ink is an individual decision. For those wishing to proceed, sites like P-ink.org offer examples of mastectomy tattoos or online social media groups may provide inspiration.

To date, I haven’t found an artist willing to work over my scars but hopefully, in the near future, I’ll find one. Seven years is a long time to wait for a scar coverup, but over the years, cancer has taught me the fine art of patience, so it won’t hurt to wait a little longer. They say good things come to those who wait.

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