Tag Archives: mastectomy tattoo

Why I Posed Nude on National TV

The vision came to me in the shower. I saw myself standing naked at the mouth of an open cave in front of a reverse halo of blackness. Charise was there too, crouched down to take my picture. I remembered seeing her at that art opening last spring, and the open invitation to do a nude photo shoot. Maybe I should give her a call soon. Then, as these synchronicities tend to happen, she called me the very next day. She excitedly told me how she was just contacted by the Megyn Kelly Today show, and they wanted to feature her work, The Grace Project. She wanted to photograph me the very next week. Not only would I be posing topless for a photo shoot, but would be filmed showing my mastecomied chest— the after effects of breast cancer— to the entire world on NBC. To my own shock and disbelief, the word “yes” tumbled from my mouth!

I thought I would never, EVER pose topless on national TV. But I was never ever going to get breast cancer either, like Viola, the grandma I had never met.  She was ravaged by breast cancer and passed away at 58, about a year before I was born. I grew up hearing the myth, “Cancer often skips a generation,” but lived like I had fingers stuffed in my ears—la-la-la-la! Besides, I ate clean organic food, and I went to the gym. I was impervious to breast cancer until I found that lump in my breast when I was 36.

When my 3 year old son scampered over me, his little kick to the chest area drew my attention to this lump, the size of a nickel near my left areola. Even then I refused to think cancer. It must be a swollen lymph node from all the recent dental work, I thought. I was working as an office manager at a small chiropractic office at the time, and the doctor had just decided to drop our medical coverage a month before. It can’t be cancer. I can’t even go to the doctor right now.

Some divine timing took over because this happened to be 2014, the first year that enrollment in insurance marketplaces opened up, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. It would be another 5 months until I successfully navigated the goliath marketplace website, got a referral to a breast surgeon—and faced the fact that all the lymphatic massage and homeopathic medicine in the world wasn’t making this lump go away. In May of 2014 that illusion of cancer invincibility came crashing down with a diagnosis of an aggressive grade 3, stage 1, triple negative breast cancer.

I was the first woman in my line to benefit from the advances in genome mapping, and the first to test positive for the BRCA 1 gene mutation. Now I could make choices knowing that I had an 85% risk of cancer recurrence if I kept any breast tissue, and that I had an elevated risk of a few other cancers. We found out my mom was also BRCA 1+, and she was able to have a prophylactic surgery, hopefully sparing her of ever getting breast cancer.  She told me how at 15 years old, she was terrified of her breasts and begged her pediatrician to remove them, even after seeing her mother’s butchered chest. Here she was finally getting her wish at 58, the same age her mother had died.

Charise Isis is half way through her mission to photograph 800 women who have had breast cancer and mastectomies, because that is roughly how many women are diagnosed with breast cancer each day in the U.S. But I couldn’t even consider being photographed when my friend first told me about The Grace Project in August of 2014. I was home nursing my incisions and steeling myself for the chemo treatments ahead. I looked like a Frankenstein Barbie with these hard, immovable implants shoved under my pectoral muscles, fresh red scars forming where my nipples once were and snaking towards my armpits. I was scared and angry at the absurdity of cancer. Some of The Grace Project women were smiling. All of the women in Charise’s photos looked so brave and strong. Would I feel this way someday too?

It would be a lie to portray this as one simple surgery. I had a Port-a-Cath installed and later removed—this would deliver the chemo right into a major artery or vein for distribution throughout the body. Then there was the infection in my breast and the ultrasound guided needle extraction to relieve some pressure, nerve-wrackingly close to my silicone implant. There was the round of IVF with egg retrieval to harvest some of my eggs before the chemical tsunami hit. I also had an augmentation surgery to make my chest more symmetrical. Then right before my 39th birthday I had my ovaries removed to protect against ovarian cancer, another high BRCA 1 risk.

I desperately wanted to move on with my life, but even though my hair grew back and I was rebuilding strength and stamina, there was still this looming cloud of fear and uncertainty. With triple negative cancer, there is this sense of being on high alert for 5 years following a diagnosis. If it comes back, it might do so in a big way, showing up in my bones, brain or organs. But if I can make it to this magic 5 year mark, the statistics show my chances of getting cancer drop back on par with national averages.

Cancerversaries, those dates of diagnosis, surgeries, and first or last treatments are very triggering for a cancer survivor.  That’s why I decided to get my chest tattooed on the 2nd anniversary of that July 14th mastectomy. I didn’t go for nipple tattoos either. For me faux nipples were a mocking symbol of pain and loss. To take that date back in a powerful way, my tattoo artist, Miranda Lorberer, helped me create a gorgeous design that would be mine alone. We created a sprawling organic design inspired by the fine linear Indian Mehndi tattoos, that combines spirals and florals and peacock feathers together. As she worked the ink into my skin, she told me how her dad had died of breast cancer when she was in high school. I could feel his presence in the room that day.

I met Charise in person at an art opening last fall. Seeing her beautiful images on large pieces of silk was otherworldly, like skin printed on skin, soft, flowy and feminine. I was still not one of the women in her pictures, but now I had a secret under my shirt. After having my breasts brutalized by surgery, after being poked, prodded and clinicalized by doctors at countless appointments, they were finally mine again. I felt rare and exotic, and wanted to keep my breasts secreted away for the boudoir. I was not ready for the camera.

Then came the call about the Megyn Kelly show. For a brief moment I felt scared to death to be filmed and photographed nude. Then I remembered I had already looked death in the face, and something broke free in me. I coach people every day to make powerful choices, to take meaningful risks. This was not a time for me to hide out. This “yes” was a resounding answer from deep in my cells, calling me forward to some unknowable place. I thought of the woman facing down her surgery, or sitting home hating her surgical drains and icing her chest. Maybe she would see my picture and begin to imagine her place in this world beyond the inky black uncertainty of her cancer diagnosis. Maybe I could offer a little hope when the light is dim.

I prepared for the photo shoot that day with a long bath, thinking about the talking points I wanted to cover while the camera crew filmed us. I made a mental list as I shaved and moisturized. I wanted to mention CharityNavigator, to think beyond pink ephemera when donating money towards cancer causes, and avoid those foundations that absorb a majority of funds towards administrative costs. I wanted to mention that often metastatic cancer research is underfunded—only 2% of funds going towards metastatic research is such a meek sliver of hope on the fundraising level. I wanted to encourage people to support local oncology programs, and individuals living with cancer in their own communities. I hoped to mention my coaching work and my blog, Melissashealinghope.

It was clear the producer had a very specific moment in mind, and my talking points were moot. With the cameras on me I felt raw, exposed, and vulnerable. I wondered how I would look. Who would see this? What would people say? This powerlessness was eerily reminiscent of those weeks around my diagnosis, when my hopes about having a certain surgery or working with a specific doctor were dashed. I was seeking a second opinion at Sloan Kettering when I learned that nipple sparing surgery wasn’t an option for me, that the ducts met in the nipple and could leaving them could lead to a cancer recurrence. Ironic how I could only be shown topless on TV without these little pieces of flesh, my innocent nipples offensive to my body and to the viewing public.

Standing there with the lens focused on me, Charise asked me to close my eyes, to breathe and feel my feet on the ground. Her soothing voice told me to send grounding roots deep down underground, and the camera jitters began to ease. With my eyes on the horizon, the camera crew faded. I thought of Milyn, Champagne Joy, and Karen. Once here, and now gone, leaving inexplicable holes where there used to be life. I thought of my friends still in the grips of their diagnosis, held in this dance between worlds. The cool air on my skin brought me back to the moment, and I looked into the camera. I never want to forget what a miracle it is to be.

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I Have a Secret

I have a secret. It is hidden away underneath my shirt, and only revealed under the most private and intimate of circumstances. I reveal myself to only a select few. My husband, my mother, my aunt, a very few of the closest girlfriends will catch a glimpse.

I took for granted my natural born nipples. I first noticed them one day while lying on my belly, looking up at the Saturday morning airing of the ‘Smurfs’. With pressure upon my chest, I noticed a pinching feeling and discovered hard little balls had formed under my newly pubescent areolas. Later that day my aunt came over. After she and my mom conferred for a bit, it was proclaimed to me that, “Your buds are sprouting! You are becoming a woman!”

They were an annoyance at first, until the 6th grade, when I wore them with a meek sense of pride and embarrassment underneath that new first bra. I found my breasts possessed a strange power over the opposite sex, something I was not yet prepared to face and too young to harness.

Boobs were never up to snuff. In the gym locker room of high school, someone else was always bigger and fuller or god forbid, way smaller. I recall the well-endowed girls always written off as sluts by the other girls, likely due to the extra attention they were given by the boys. There was never a feeling of complete satisfaction, just more self-awareness, comparing and judging.

In the grocery store, you had to wear a jacket or a vest, or one of those near armor plated padded bras to avoid the tell-tale sign that left you exposed in the freezer section. It was as if we were supposed to be anatomical Barbies, with breasts formed in neat smooth mounds, in some mass denial that nipples existed.

After the breast cancer diagnosis, I looked down upon my chest with sadness and betrayal. They still just couldn’t get it right. After it was determined that I had hereditary breast cancer and stood an 85% chance of developing cancer in the other breast, I made the very hard decision to have a double mastectomy. Nipple sparing surgery wasn’t a good option since the cancer had may its way into my ducts. Now I looked down at the girls with deep sorrow, with apology in my gut. It was as if a lover were soon leaving me and we would be parted forever.

I had a few pictures taken of me before the surgery, so I would always remember my breasts as they were. Perfectly imperfect. Mine.

The irony of now having hard smooth round reconstructed breasts is not lost on me. For nearly two years I have been healing. While the physical scars are lighter, the emotional scars are harder to gauge. I think I am starting to heal a tiny fraction of nerve damage, starting to feel some sensations on my chest where before there were none. On the inside, some unnameable ball of trauma is starting to soften and unravel.

Nipples are as varied as a fingerprint or an iris. They are one of your private areas. This very private area of mine was clinicalized, ostracized and brutalized. My tattoo artist helped me claim my breasts again as my own, she made me beautiful. Together we envisioned the perfect design. Mine would not be flat 3-D renderings of areolas. I have seen amazing work to that end, but for me nipples would serve a reminder of what was lost.

What made this tattoo even more special is that while the artist completed her work, she revealed to me that she had lost her dad to Stage 4 breast cancer when she was just 23 years old. She and I had gone to high school together, but she was a few grades below me and her brother a grade above me. I had no idea the hardship they had faced as a family. As the ink gunned into my skin in perfect black lines, I heard the emotion in her voice. I felt her dad in the room with us. His story is in my skin.

Now I have reclaimed these private parts. I love how my new tattoos make me feel. Nude, I am beautiful and feminine again, rare and exotic. I will always wear this secret badge of courage with pride. It is a reminder that strength, resilience and hope is so much more than skin deep.

 

Breast cancer among men is a very real thing that is rarely ever discussed, and may lead to more later stage diagnosis in men. The American Cancer Society estimates that in this year alone, about 2600 new cases of invasive breast cancer in men will be diagnosed. An estimated 440 of them will die. While the incidence of cases in men is about 100 times less common than among women, it is still important to be aware of, and to normalize the conversation among men and the people who love them.

Mastectomy Tattoo Options

I am still a ways off from being tattoo ready. There will be a period of healing after this next surgery. Just yesterday, my husband and I were discussing tattoos of fake nipples vs. some other type of tattoo to cover my scars. Mostly he wants me to feel happy with my body, but I could tell that he was baffled by the idea of some other image on my breasts. I could sense too that he misses those familiar pink areolas looking back at him.

Personally I am not interested in replicating nipples. They would serve as impostors and constant reminders of what was taken from me. Even the best, most realistic tattoo artist couldn’t change the way I feel inside about this. I saw a video today about P.ink Day and it made me tear up. I could so relate to these women. One of the women put it so perfectly when she talked about the fact that she didn’t choose this to happen, she didn’t choose these scars, but she could choose her tattoo. There is something so powerful about transmuting a difficult or negative experience into something you can own, to lift your head up, shoulders back and see yourself in the mirror… really See and Love yourself, and feel beautiful. It doesn’t take ink to do this, but for some it may help the metamorphosis into who you want to be now that your body and life have been forever altered. As they say on the P.ink Day website, “Breast Cancer doesn’t have to leave the last mark”.