By Carrie Brooks-Joiner, KAB member
When I was a kid, the only person I knew with a tattoo was my Great Uncle Harold. It was on his upper arm and its original sharpness and colour had long faded. I never knew what it represented, and I didn’t dare to ask him. I only ever knew it had something to do with the war and that my mother disapproved. To me, it represented a combination of badass and what I could only assume was youthful regret.
At eighteen, my youngest daughter announced she was going to get a tattoo on her inner forearm. She didn’t need my approval, but I certainly let her know I did not approve. My concern about the permanence was to her the whole point of getting one.
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My daughter and I got matching tattoos for my 50th Birthday – a dragon and pink ribbon. I was diagnosed at age 44, joined the Knot A Breast Dragon Boat Team the next year. At that time, the team was just finding themselves. We broke the 3 minute mark for a race – that was an exciting race (we have come a long way since then). I guess you could say these were our first glory days of racing.
My personal life not so hot: our parents were getting up there; my Dad passed away the month before by 50th birthday. My daughter suggested we do something fun – get matching tattoos. I have never regretted getting the tattoo. I actually forget I have it most times.
P.S.: We made the tattoo artist make the dragon happy, not scary, so it is not exactly like the KAB dragon.
It seemed that overnight tattoo culture was everywhere. It was the subject of reality TV shows, produced a raft of tattoo artist stars, and provided fodder for Instagram. Several of my friends celebrated birthdays, vacations and milestones by getting “inked”. I didn’t get the allure, and the permanent inking of skin seemed slightly repulsive to me. I swore I would never get a tattoo, but cancer made a liar out of me.
It never occurred to me that tattoos would be used to map the boundaries of my radiation treatment zone. Four small green dots, inked clumsily by a radiation technician, were my initiation into tattoo culture. The dots, the size of freckles, remind me of the first points of an incomplete dot-to-dot game of my youth and the picture isn’t revealed until all the dots are joined by lines drawn in sequential order. But my dot tattoos were neither interesting, artistic nor meaningful in a positive way. They did, however, give me bragging rights and all of a sudden I had more tattoos than anyone I knew.
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I had started to think about getting a tattoo well before my breast cancer diagnosis. I could never find anything meaningful enough to warrant the pain and the permanency of a tattoo. My life changed drastically after breast cancer and not just in a negative way. I became stronger, lost a lot of weight, joined Knot A Breast Dragon Boat Team, and started along the road to become fitter and healthier than I have ever been. There was a new me and I thought, OK, time for that tattoo to celebrate this new person.
I was never really enamoured with the pink ribbon or the fact that it was a survivor symbol. I don’t feel like a survivor. It feels like it should be more of a thriver symbol. I didn’t just survive, I thrived and I knew I wanted to have a mark on my body to symbolize that, a visible mark on a very strong part of my body, my shoulder!
The foundation is the ribbon but the colour is not the traditional pink, nor is the shape, feel or flow. It’s a whimsical brush stroke, with a flowy form and movement that symbolizes for me that I have thrived and grown into someone who is healthy and strong. And it makes me smile every time I see it! It doesn’t make me think of cancer. It symbolizes for me that I have flourished into someone who is strong, powerful and a little bit artsy!
Now with the link between tattoos and cancer firmly in my mind, I began to notice that breast cancer has its own tattoo culture. As I moved through stages of treatment in search of the new normal, I became aware of how embedded tattoos are in the breast cancer community. Apart from the unwanted radiation tattoos that many of us do our best to ignore, there are also celebratory tattoos that are chosen deliberately and worn proudly, rallying tattoos that are badges of the battle and the fight, images that note the belonging of the breast cancer survivor “club”, and, sadly, memorial tattoos worn by friends and family.
A year after my mastectomy I became interested in the post-surgery tattoos: ones to hide mastectomy and reconstructions scars and others that create the illusion of a three-dimensional nipple on a reconstructed breast. It was the scar-hiding tattoos that initially fascinated me the most. The program P.ink (Personal Ink, a North American program that provides “tattoo inspiration” to breast cancer survivors) shares images of how artists use a scarred chest as a canvas for sweeping florals, exquisite birds, and complex graphics. They promote beautiful, empowering designs as a way for women to reclaim their bodies after breast cancer and not allow it to leave the “last mark”.
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I had the ‘pink ribbon’ done about 5 years after being diagnosed. I had already been part of Knot A Breast Dragon Boat Team for a couple of seasons. It was one way that I could state that I was a Breast Cancer Survivor. When I made the choice to have a tattoo, I asked a girlfriend to come with me to be my support. We went for a couple of glasses of wine after. I chose to put it on my ankle because it was in the open for anyone to see – yet subtle.
I had never seen a mastectomy scar until I viewed my own. As much as I admired the artistry of the elaborate tattoos, I didn’t have a need or desire to hide my mastectomy scar. With a length of 7 inches, it would take a large tattoo to hide it. I wasn’t interested in anything that substantial or that would show when I am dressed.
With thoughts of hiding the scar out the window, I increasingly became intrigued by the idea of “owning” my scar and how a tattoo might enhance that concept. The scar is a long, thin imperfect line that starts at my sternum and ends under my armpit. I played with the idea of the line as a wire and imagined small birds on it (Leonard Cohen in my ears) or turning it into telephone wires with poles. A string? Not vertical enough for a kite. A tail? No rodents or creatures on this chest. Eventually, I got back to the idea of the scar as a former wound. I like sewing and imagined a needle and thread with large stitches across the scar just like the mending of a tear in clothing. Too cliché. A zipper? No, that was a scar cover and I’d decided against hiding it. I thought I had it with the idea of tattooed staples but in the end, decided that it was too Frankenstein. I was getting nowhere, and the months were passing by. After much research and reference checking, I had selected a tattoo artist, but I still didn’t know what I wanted in a tattoo.
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From KAB’s Website: It is said that a dragonfly represents the spirit of a team member no longer with us; they rest, ever so gently with glistening wings, on the shoulder of the paddlers to give them strength as they race down the course. They symbolize hope, grace and strength. Often, dragonflies will glide over the paddles as the team waits for the starting horn to blow. It brings a bittersweet smile to their faces, encouraging them to do their best.
A couple of years after my ‘Pink Ribbon’ tattoo, a teammate asked me to be her supporter when she got her first tattoo. While she was getting her dragonfly done, I made the decision to have a smaller version tattooed on my wrist. Now, understanding the meaning that the dragonfly has to Breast Cancer Survivors, it was an easy choice.
I went back to basics: the scar was not to be hidden; it was to be a (former) wound rather than turned into something else; it needed to be a personally meaningful message. One day it came to me: safety pins. Safety pins fix things. They reinforce. They add strength where there is weakness. Even though my cancer-laden breast is gone, and the scar is healed, there is a risk of recurrence. Safety pins. Perfect.
In October 2018, I met with tattoo artist Anthony Jenkins, owner of The Intrepid Club in Waterdown (now in Dundas). Anthony is known for exquisite nipple re-creation tattoos and has done a lot of work on scars and with mastectomy clients. I took my idea to him and he immediately got it. Rather than put me on the many months waiting list as I had expected and was prepared for, he offered to do the tattoo in the following days. I said yes, made the appointment, and left wondering “what I have done?” When I returned, Anthony had designed the tattoo based on our discussion and it was perfect. The actual tattooing was not painful or uncomfortable (my scar area is quite numb) – it was closer to a prickly sensation like an electric razor, and it was all done within 45 minutes.
A year and a half later I still love the tattoo. It has given me many a smile in response to startled looks from medical staff when I’m disrobed for checkups and scans. It accomplished exactly what I’d hoped it would for me: a visual and emotional reminder of strength and reinforcement. I own this scar.