This I know: how a tattoo can heal

Tanya Olsen on her choice to end her cancer journey with a mastectomy tattoo.FIRST PERSON

For 40 years, I took a lot for granted — my reflection in the mirror, how my clothes fit and my sense of self. On Sept. 14, 2013, all of that changed in an instant.

Less than an hour after being diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, I knew I would not follow the traditional path to reconstruction or implants. Treatment called for a single mastectomy, but I opted to remove both breasts for symmetry and to keep up my active lifestyle. That was my first choice. My next choice, and the second phone call I made that day, was to contact a tattoo artist.

I chose a mastectomy tattoo — it’s my ultimate act of defiance to my unwelcome internal intruder. At my first sitting, while my tattoo’s outline was being drawn, the mental relief began. Twelve appointments and 32 hours later, the journey to treat my cancer was truly over.

Cancer stole much from me. Although I did not have a lot of choices for treatment, I could decide how to personally face the disease and the accompanying “monsters under the bed.” Reconstruction would offer visual safety, but would do little to fix my own experience in the mirror.

To others, my ink is a physical cover — not even my oncologist can find the scars. It camouflages two eight-inch concave scars that were my breasts; three surgical drain scars; the port-a-cath incision near my collarbone; and the medical tattoos and skin discolouration from radiation. Left naked, these physical manifestations were a constant reminder of a dark time.

I chose an intricate tattoo of a Virginia pine tree because the texture of its ridged and furrowed bark makes it easier to camouflage the scars. Its inspiration came from a rock-climbing trip with friends to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky just before I started chemo. The roots sit on my left hip; the trunk runs up my ribcage and the branches twist their way across my chest. People ask if it hurt – absolutely! Like anything else in life, to be appreciated it has to be earned.

For me, this tattoo is necessary for my continued mental health, offering mental asylum when I catch my reflection in a shiny surface. Living through critical illness also means confronting the daily “How are you? No, really, how are you?” conversation. When people stare, my tattoo shows I’m confident and comfortable in my own skin. For my husband, it means I’m not pretending to be someone I’m not.

In 2014 I met with my local MPP to start a dialogue about how OHIP views medical tattoos — post-mastectomy breast reconstruction is covered; mastectomy tattoos are not, despite being less invasive, less costly and less disruptive to those with active lifestyles. I can personally attest to their therapeutic value.

I know my choice is unorthodox and may not be accepted by some. The price for my tattoo was high: eighteen months of medical procedures, two breasts and a serious shake to my mental health. But I know if I am going to live in this body, it’s got to be on my terms.


Tanya Olsen, BLA ’98, is the owner of Royal City Nursery in Guelph, Ont., and a horticulture professor at Humber College. She’s an avid rock climber and underwater diver. Tattoo artist Mac Young of Nighthawk Tattoo in Guelph created her body art. Read more about her story at tanyaolsenblog.wordpress.com.


PHOTO BY DEAN PALMER

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