Breast cancer always leaves scars. Some are visible and some are not. Today, I'd like to focus on the visible scars.
No one ever warned me I’d receive six little permanent tattoos on my chest prior to radiation. The tiny dots, blue in color, will never leave my chest. They were applied by the radiation team and used to help map out perfect alignment as I went through treatments. Those miniscule markings have become a permanent part of my life, constant reminders of a challenging time, but I’m thankful for them.
I vividly remember the day I was to begin radiation treatments for breast cancer. I was nervous, but also excited to finally be doing something proactive toward eliminating the cancer cells in my body. As I stood in a thin hospital gown, I listened to the radiology technician explain what was about to take place. After going into great detail, she asked if I understood what she’d said. I nodded my head yes. Next, she took out a permanent marker and asked me to lie on a table underneath the huge machine that would deliver doses of radiation. She flipped a switch and turned on the machine. I watched as lines and graphs appeared on my chest. This pattern of bright red and green lines crisscrossed my body. At specific intersections, the tech took the marker and made an X. Then she circled it. As she worked, I waited. I had no idea why she was drawing all over my torso but I assumed it was necessary.
When she had completed her job of mapping my chest, the technician turned off the machine and had me sit up. She explained I would need to be careful not to scrub off the markings as I showered. She placed clear plastic adhesive dots over each mark to help keep them in place as she explained they would help her line me up under the machine for treatments.
The following day, when it was time for my first treatment session, I was instructed to lie on the table underneath the linear accelerator. I could feel the cold metal table pressing against my skin as I lay there. Two technicians worked together pulling and pushing me one way and another to get the dots on my chest aligned with the grid of the linear accelerator. Finally, after a few minutes, the ladies stepped out of the treatment room and stood behind a lead barrier to administer the first dose of radiation. I didn’t feel a thing. After about five minutes, my session was over.
A day passed and it was time for treatment again. The black markings from the marker had started to fade and I was worried I wouldn’t get lined up correctly beneath the machine. When the technician looked at my chest, she saw the blurry marks. I explained I’d been careful to avoid disturbing them while showering. She didn’t seem concerned and said she had a better idea. I listened as she explained I had a choice to make. I could choose to have her repeatedly mark my chest with a permanent marker (which wasn’t very permanent on skin) or I could choose to have tiny tattoos on my chest. She explained they’d be extremely small, about the size of a pin head, would have a bluish cast. She looked into my eyes and said, “And they’ll be there forever.”
I don’t think she expected me to laugh, but I did. She really wanted me to understand the markings would never come off. She explained that some patients accepted tattoos and others did not. She reassured me the choice was mine and there was absolutely no pressure to choose the tattoos.
That’s when I raised my gown and showed her a beautiful phoenix tattoo. Emblazoned high upon my upper right chest, just slightly left of my heart, was a brightly colored, very ornate oriental bird. She exclaimed, “Oh, you already have a tattoo!” I nodded and then lifted my gown to reveal another tattoo on my right calf and then one on my left. She smiled and said, “Do you have any more?” I turned around so my back was facing her and said, “Open my gown and take a peek inside.” Timidly, she untied my gown and opened the back enough to reveal the largest tattoo on my body — a huge Luna moth flanked by beautifully detailed Stargazer lilies. She commented on the rich colors and closed my gown.
“So, I guess six more tiny tattoos won’t be a problem for you then, will they?” she said, giggling as she moved across the room. I told her they would not.
I watched as she took a small, handheld machine and made the first marking. It was not a traditional tattoo machine made using an electric reverberating needle and colored ink, but it was a medical machine. It was more like a large needle that punched through skin quickly and deposited dye at the same time. It was a quick and painless procedure. I barely felt those six little spots. Allowing her to make permanent marks would ensure I’d always get lined up correctly. I wouldn’t have to worry about washing off the marks either.
Today, those little blue dots are constant reminders of the 28 rounds of radiation I endured. Each time I look at them, I give thanks. Although radiation treatments were painless, I did experience some unpleasant side effects. About halfway through treatment, I was burned very badly. The radiation oncologist was called in to look at the burns. When she saw them, she expressed her concern and instructed me to take two weeks off so my body could heal. I was given a prescription cream to apply. She said it would help provide soothing relief and ease the pain. I also suffered extreme fatigue as the radiation destroyed both cancer cells and also normal cells. To this day, radiation has left a permanent sunburn on one side of my chest and along the right side of my neck.
Of course, those little blue tattoos and the permanent sunburn aren’t the only marks cancer has placed upon my body. I have surgical scars running horizontally from one side of my chest to the other. Tattoos, sunburns and scars are small prices to pay for living though, and if I had it to do over again, I’d do it without reservation.
Now, instead of five beautiful tattoos, I have 11. Six of them are so tiny you’d hardly see them unless I pointed them out to you, but those are the ones I treasure most.
Little blue dots, just like Xs on a treasure map, helped the technician know exactly where to aim the radiation beams to eradicate my cancer. My body is a colorful exhibit of tattoos and scars. I’m not ashamed them. In fact, they’ve become quite the conversation piece at medical appointments. Sometimes doctors don’t remember my name, but they do remember my tattoos and comment on them.
Permanent markings, like my little radiation tattoos, are great reminders. When I see them, I can’t help but remember my time in the radiation clinic. And though there’s no buried treasure to be found by following the trail of tiny tattoos on my chest, they have led to a path of gold. I’m still here. Cancer has not won. I like being reminded of that.