IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Got a Mastectomy Tattoo

I wasn’t going to be the woman who loved her scars and what they stood for. I wanted something nicer to look at.
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Dana Donofree
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I wasn’t going to be the woman who loved her scars and what they stood for. I wanted something nicer to look at.

Try as much as you’d like, but looking at your reflection is never completely avoidable. 

You may be able to hop into the shower without disrupting your peripheral vision, or hurriedly rush past the glass windows along the city streets. But, for most of us, looking in the mirror is part of our routines, especially if your routine involves drawing in eyebrows. 

I couldn't not look. It is a strange psychological, fundamental phenomenon. The one that causes us to slow down and side-glance at car accidents or taste something someone tells us is awful. 

But it wasn't easy to look. Nothing was easy with cancer. But it was something I thought I was strong enough to handle, this simple task of looking in the mirror every morning.

After all, I never was one to turn away from the scale at doctor visits. Not seeing the numbers won’t make my pants less snug. And I would spend a good amount of time in a three-way mirror evaluating myself honestly: pretty eyes, decent body, OK boobs, great skin—I’ll give it a 7.

I always had to see for myself. Because, you know, it can’t be that bad.

But when you have cancer, yes, unfortunately, it can be that bad.

The pretty eyes are sunken and darkened. The decent body swings like a pendulum from sickly thin to medically bloated. The great skin is raw and bisected with scars. And the breasts? Well, they are just not normal.

Making light of my bald situation, ironically with a flowering tree.

Making light of my bald situation, ironically with a flowering tree.

Six rounds of chemotherapy, two surgeries, and the long, painful process of losing my natural breasts and having new ones built for me in the narrow expanse between my chest wall and skin—that’s what breast cancer gave me. 

At first, watching my chest go from flat to full was an oddly fascinating marvel of science. I was a human Reebok Pump sneaker: two square blocks where my breasts had been were being filled up each morning until a doctor told me I was finished. 

Knowing this was just a stage in the process made it OK to see this foreign object staring back at me every morning. I told myself it was temporary. I was going to be fine and cancer-free. I am a strong, fierce survivor. I can handle the “scars of battle.” 

I would eventually trade in these weird little Lego boobs and get brand-new implants, and I would look normal again.

But I didn’t.

My new breasts were not breasts, because my reconstruction was not just a boob job. It was a surgical creation of stiff, sensation-less, nipple-less mounds. Under a T-shirt, they looked like real breasts, but naked, in the mirror, they were anything but. 

I was devastated. And I certainly didn’t want to be reminded every morning of what my breasts had now become. But, it was going to be impossible for me to ever look away.

There are options to continue the reconstruction procedures after the actual reconstruction surgery. You can have nipple-sparing surgery and, somehow, through the miracle of medicine, have your old ones sewn back on. You can have an artificial nipple constructed, and then finished off with 3-D tattooing.

After that, you're considered finished. But I needed to feel finished some other way.

When I came to terms with the fact that I was never going to get what I had pictured in my head, I wanted something different, something deeply personal. I had given over control of my body to cancer and doctors long enough. It was time for me to take that back.

I wasn’t going to be the woman who loved her scars and what they stood for. I hated them, actually. They didn’t make me feel warrior strong, They reminded me every morning of the poisonous chemo drips that almost killed me, and the painful, restrictive and laborious process of recovering from surgery. I wanted something nicer to look at.

Better yet, I wanted a focal point; something pretty, something that complemented my new body and my new life. I wanted it to be something that made me feel proud to look at. As an artist, I wanted shape, contour, color, definition, texture and lines. I wanted something similar to a bra, because none of mine fit anymore, but also something more abstract and meaningful.

I wanted a tattoo.

I figured, if they can tattoo a nipple on fake breasts, they can probably tattoo something else there, too.

The tree changed my life.

The tree changed my life.

Instantly, I was inspired by a cherry blossom tree: the representation of beauty, a new beginning, the fragility of life and rebirth. This cherry blossom tree would be my tree of life, and it would usher me into a wholeness of self.

I started talking to scores of tattoo artists—basically anyone who would hear me—and looking for someone whose style and technique I connected with. Dozens of portfolios later, I found him: Delshay. 

I will never forget the day we met. I made an appointment, stopped in and said, "This may be one of the craziest tattoos you've ever been asked to do, and you may be a little creeped out, but here’s what I’m looking for." 

He wasn’t thrown, he wasn’t surprised, and he wasn’t creeped out at all. We discussed my idea, I showed him my scars, and we started the tattoo the following week.

The style was beautiful, authentic and captured everything I wanted to say and remember about my experience with cancer.

The style was beautiful, authentic and captured everything I wanted to say and remember about my experience with cancer.

Over three sessions—about half the amount of time I’d spent in the chemo tank—he helped me feel beautiful. 

It was an emotional experience for me. His work marked the end of my journey with something I wanted to celebrate. I am forever thankful that he took that leap and that chance with me. 

And since that day, I’ve shown my tattoos to more women than I can even count so they can see what other options or ideas may inspire them on their journey. I want them to be able to look in the mirror, not just because they can’t help it. But because, this time, they want to.