Women opt for tattoos after mastectomy

Colorful designs help women reclaim their bodies after cancer
Image: Inga Duncan Thornell
Seattle tattoo artist Tina Bafaro says the number of women seeking post-mastectomy tattoos is increasing. Robert Hood/Fred Hutch

Even before her mastectomy, Inga Duncan Thornell knew she didn’t want to have her breasts reconstructed.

She didn’t want to go through more surgery and didn’t like the idea of implants. So when her husband brought home a book showing a woman with a rose tattoo on her chest where a breast used to be, Thornell was intrigued.

She had a double prophylactic mastectomy in 1993, not long after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and her stepmother died of it. After Thornell’s surgery, she got a tattoo that took more than a year of Saturdays to complete and resembles a cropped camisole adorned with flowers and vines. Almost two decades later, she still loves it.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Thornell, 51, who lives in Burien, south of Seattle. “When I see myself in the mirror, it’s like it’s always been a part of me.”

A growing number of women are following Thornell’s lead, choosing to cover their post-mastectomy scars with colorful images that block out painful reminders of the losses they have endured. Some, like Thornell, decided against breast reconstruction, while others have undergone reconstruction but want to tattoo over their mastectomy scars. The tattoos range from recreated nipples ― which can be realistic-looking or take the form of flowers, hearts or other shapes ― to much larger, more expansive designs.

Dr. Julie Gralow, a member of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said mastectomies can be highly traumatic for some women, prompting them to mourn the loss of their breasts for years. For some, she said, a tattoo can make them feel better about their altered appearance.

“It can potentially add some beauty and some art, and allow them to look at that part of their body in a more positive way,” Gralow said.

Vyvyn Lazonga, who owns a tattoo shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, said she’s seen an increasing number of women seeking post-mastectomy tattoos over the past five years. Those women often feel transformed by their body art, she said.

“They really love it,” Lazonga said. “It helps them feel beautiful again.”

'It was my choice'
West Seattle resident Marguerite Lynch underwent a mastectomy about eight years ago, followed by reconstruction. But her new breasts didn’t look natural, and every time Lynch looked in the mirror, all she saw were the scars.

Image: Inga Duncan Thornell
Inga Duncan Thornell got her tattoo after a double mastectomy in 1993. Photo by Robert Hood

“I just thought, they’re not real anyway, so why not decorate them?” Lynch said.

Lynch, 50, went to Seattle artist Tina Bafaro after seeing an online photo of Thornell’s tattoo, which Bafaro created. Bafaro and Lynch have been working together for almost four years on a tattoo that now covers Lynch’s breasts and runs up her shoulders and down both arms. A gardener and beekeeper, Lynch opted for a jungle-themed design that includes a hummingbird modeled after one that frequents her yard, and bees where her nipples were.

Each aspect of the design has personal meaning to Lynch, who said the process has made her feel she has reclaimed her body from cancer.

“I felt like I was turning it into something I wanted to turn it into, versus what my doctor wanted,” said Lynch. “It was my choice at that point.”

Bafaro will soon tattoo nipples on her 65-year-old sister, who lost both her breasts to cancer and underwent reconstruction. Her sister previously would have never considered a tattoo, Bafaro said, nor would many women who opt for post-mastectomy tattoos.

“There’s a growing trend of women doing this,” she said. “It gives them some power over this devastating thing that’s happened.”

An underground option
Though mastectomy tattoos have become more common since Thornell’s pioneering decision, some women may not be aware of them as a post-surgery option. Noel Franus, an ad agency executive in Boulder, Colo., said when his sister-in-law, Molly Ortwein, underwent a mastectomy three years ago, she decided she wanted a chest tattoo but could find little information about them online.

So in March, Franus launched P.INK (for Personal Ink), a Pinterest board where visitors can find information on artists specializing in mastectomy tattoos and peruse close to 1,000 tattoo images ranging from rainbows to mandalas. The organization recently held its inaugural P.INK Day, a crowd-funded event in New York City that matched 10 breast cancer survivors with artists and provided no-cost tattoos.

“We wanted to help connect women with tattoo artists, folks who might be critical in helping them move on from what breast cancer left behind,” Franus said.

Thornell unwittingly became the poster child for mastectomy tattoos earlier this year after Facebook removed a photo of her tattoo, citing the company’s anti-nudity policy. Facebook later backtracked on the decision.

The incident has helped increase awareness about mastectomy tattoos, Bafaro said.

“This has been kind of an underground option for women,” she said. “In a way, it’s really good that this has come out and Inga’s willing to be open and talk about it.”

Bafaro has put her distinctive, finely detailed designs on close to 20 women who have had mastectomies. All have involved floral and nature-focused themes, she said, which tend to look more feminine than other types of tattoos and flow well, making it easier to work with scarred areas.

Permanently inking anyone’s body is a major responsibility, but Bafaro said mastectomy tattoos carry a particular gravitas.

“There is a different kind of weight, because they’ve gone through this trauma,” she said.

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