I Got Breast Cancer at 23, And Post-Mastectomy Tattoos Helped Me Reclaim My Identity

The tattooing was like therapy, a surgery for the soul. (NSFW photos within.)
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Nikki Black
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The tattooing was like therapy, a surgery for the soul. (NSFW photos within.)

Some of the images below are NSFW.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 23, I had only been doing stand-up comedy in Philadelphia for a few months. I had just agreed to move into a townhouse in Fishtown with other comedians. I was not prepared for that kind of blow.

After the initial shock of the diagnosis, I threw myself headfirst into performing and did my first set about the diagnosis only a week after I had received it. It was the best way I had to process my emotions and make sense of a chaotic universe.

Unfortunately, I began experiencing an open sexualization of my disease I had not anticipated. Immediately after going public with my diagnosis and posting a video of a cancer set on my Facebook wall, I received messages saying things like, “Those were my second-favorite pair of boobs in Philly.” 

People openly asked me how I was going to handle reconstruction before I had even made that decision myself. One guy asked me what size I was going to get, and I attempted to answer frankly by saying probably the same size.

“Good choice,” he said, then he pointed at my soon-to-be removed, cancer-filled breasts and added, “And I mean, good choice.”

I felt like my body was on the chopping block long before I was even in surgery. I was told I could, at the very least, do some kind of fetish porn, which suggested that my post-mastectomy body would be niche, would be other, would be up for consumption.

The week before my mastectomy at the end of July, I went on vacation with my family to Ocean City, New Jersey. I spent much of that vacation sitting in a beach chair partway in the water and reading Murakami. Because of the combination of magical realism, endless expanse of ocean, glaring sun and, perhaps, a weightier understanding of mortality just beginning to form, the whole vacation had a surreal, dreamlike quality for me. 

I let the waves wash over my legs, up to my waist, and wished they would polish me into a pearl, beautiful and whole and simple. Already, though, I could feel myself not being polished, but worn away into shadows and dust of my former self.

Shortly after my mastectomy, the doctors told me I would need to start chemotherapy after all, which they at first insisted wouldn’t be necessary. I attempted to process through a series of photo shoots with friends that focused on makeup painted on my bald head.

For this photo set, I used eyeliner to draw a deer skull on my head. Photo credit: Patrick Barnes

For this photo set, I used eyeliner to draw a deer skull on my head. Photo credit: Patrick Barnes

After four rounds of chemo, a friend said he wanted to go on my “body acceptance journey” with me. He felt he had been supportive and was “owed” something. I receded into myself and assured him he was an important part of my life. So much of cancer is comforting those around you when you should be comforting yourself.

As soon as I left his apartment I regretted reassuring him. I was hurt and I felt small and unimportant, a commodity owed to those who had shown me any kindness throughout the experience, reduced again to a cancerous novelty.

Throughout the next year, I continued to fill my schedule. I started preforming as a character so that when I wrote, it didn’t have to be about me. From the outside, I am sure I looked for all the world like a poster child for grace under pressure. 

People told me I was brave, inspiring, a hero, but sitting up on that pedestal, it became nearly impossible to ask for help. I didn’t want to disappoint those who believed in me. I let myself down instead of those around me.

When I did ask for help, it was disastrous. A chemo session turned into a nightmare as I tried to express to my oncologist the depression I was experiencing. She convinced me to admit myself to the emergency room psychiatry facility even though, as I later found out, my psychiatrist had specifically advised against it. 

It was a traumatizing experience that made me feel as though any expression of sadness and frustration would make me seem hysterical. I shut down.

On Christmas Eve, 2014, I moved to Los Angeles. I thought it would be a new beginning, but I forgot you can’t move away from yourself. I spent over half a year in Los Angeles miserable and feeling lost, until I felt strong enough to begin finding my way back to myself.

I pulled myself up enough to start seeing an oncologist at UCLA and simultaneously begin therapy. A friend found a tattoo artist in Santa Clarita through the P.ink organization, that specializes in connecting breast cancer survivors to post-mastectomy tattoo artists, whose slogan is “Breast Cancer Doesn’t Have to Leave the Last Mark.”

How my breasts appeared post-reconstruction, before the tattoos.

How my breasts appeared post-reconstruction, before the tattoos.

I contacted Holly Feneht, owner of The Gilded Lily, and met with her to talk through some of my interests and what I was looking for in a tattoo. Her ability to pick up on my personality so quickly struck me. We set a date for the end of September. 

I could already feel myself crawling back into my own skin, emboldened by the process of reclaiming my body. When she sent me the final design for the tattoo, it was so beautiful I almost cried at my office desk.

The night of the tattoo, my friend Ren, whom I have known since freshman year of college, picked me up at work and drove me to The Gilded Lily. We talked about feminine healing, a theme that seemed to continue throughout the night as Holly set to work on my tattoos and all three of us talked about family, experiences with sickness in our own lives, and laughed briefly at some of the new fall television promos.

One half of the tattoos completed, without color.

One half of the tattoos completed, without color.

I could not remember feeling so comfortable or taken care of in any of my other experiences splayed out on a table and being worked on. I soon settled into the warmth and comfort in the room, draped in the robe Holly reserves for customers, Ren holding my hand when I needed her to.

The tattooing was like therapy, a surgery for the soul.

“You’ll tell people 1,000 different reasons why you got the tattoos you got,” Ren told me, and she’s right, because it’s not about a specific night or moment, but all the moments that led up to it and all the moments after. It’s not that I wanted my pre-mastectomy body back -- now that I am beginning to see the light I am grateful for the good things even terrible experiences give you --I just want the body I have to feel like it is mine.

The finished work immediately after tattooing, with a Pisces-inspired design.

The finished work immediately after tattooing, with a Pisces-inspired design.

Art got me through cancer. I may have felt like I lost that voice for a few months, and I will mourn the time I spent shutdown and feeling worthless. 

It seems appropriate, now, to have a collaborative effort on my body, a reminder to open myself up to trusting others and give myself over to a support system. 

I walked away from that experience with a sore chest, minor nausea and an incredible feeling of lightness in spite of the tattoo aftereffects. At 25, I finally feel renewed and ready to work on the most important piece of all -- myself.