Celebrating the End of Cancer Treatment by Creating a Life-Long Memory

A caregiver recalls how she and her daughter went to get tattoos to celebrate the end of her daughter’s breast cancer treatment. Now, every time she looks down at her tattoo, she can smile knowing her daughter conquered cancer.

Each year, many of us celebrate Valentine’s Day in a variety of forms. The holiday involves flowers and candy for some and cooking a special meal at home or going out to dinner for others.

My celebration of Valentine’s Day on February 14, 2020 was very different than most. And on that day, the meaning of the holiday for me changed forever. That’s because it was the day my daughter’s long appointment-filled trip on the active cancer treatment express ended.

I wanted to mark the last day that she would be hooked up to the machine at the radiation oncology clinic in a significant way. Not that I would ever forget what she had been through. Not that I would ever lose the memories of watching her endure and overcome more than anyone of her age should have to face.

Rather, I wanted to celebrate somehow that she had done it and that she had borne the side effects and managed the emotional whirlwind and was still standing. I know it’s not for everyone, but after a lot of consideration I knew, for me, the best way to do that was to get a tattoo.

When I approached my daughter to ask if that was OK with her, she decided that it would be the best way for her, too. At her next appointment with the radiation oncologist, she asked how long she would have to wait and he told her that since she was four months from the end of chemotherapy, that as long as the tattoo artist avoided the treatment area she could do it as soon as she wanted to. So, on that Valentine’s Day we walked out of the radiation oncology clinic and into a tattoo studio.

One of my favorite sayings is, “She believed she could so she did.” I decided that I would find a way to incorporate that into my tattoo design. Initially I was thinking of getting a small tattoo tucked away somewhere, but after spending a year with her intimately sharing her experience, I wanted the world to see it and ask me questions about what it meant to me.

So, I ended up with a seven-inch tulip on my inner lower arm. My daughter, Adrienne, felt much differently. She didn’t want to look down at her arm as she worked on a spread sheet and see a permanent reminder of what she had been through. She already knew that she’d have many things related to being diagnosed with breast cancer at 27 that would keep the reality front-and-center during enough of her life going forward. At the same time, she wanted it to directly relate to her experience.

In the end, she and the artist worked together to put a pink ribbon with the words, “Fight like a girl” under it tucked up literally as tight to the radiation treatment line as she could under the affected breast.

It’s impossible to describe the emotions I was feeling as the two of us sat in our respective chairs as the images slowly but surely came into being. I heard Adrienne tell her artist multiple times that she would have to change the position of her hands because it was causing her discomfort in the radiation area and I thought of how she once again had to manage things differently because of the cancer.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for these two young women, my daughter’s peers, to see themselves in my child’s place as they worked on their creations. And as I saw my tattoo develop, as I saw the permanent public evidence of her courage appear on my arm for all the world to see, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that we could do what we were doing, and that every ounce of Adrienne’s being believed she could, so she did.

Whenever Adrienne or I get pulled back into the abyss of anger or sadness about what happened, I am also grateful that I can look down at my arm and be reminded that it also represents my own experience. I could never have imagined what being a caregiver to my 27-year-old daughter would require of me, the painful paths it would drag me down as I held her hand while she cried out in pain or as I rubbed her bald head as she weathered the storm of chemo. As each day passed, and as each challenge was faced, I believed I could, so I did.And man, did she ever fight like a girl.

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