Two Ugly Cancers and Three Beautiful Tattoos Later...

Did you get a tattoo to commemorate your cancer experience? As soon as Jennifer began her collection, she felt empowered. It didn't matter that they were hidden by clothes, what mattered was that she knew they were there. Her tattoos are the reminder of how far she's come.

My story begins in May 2007, smack in the middle of my life. I was a thirty-eight year old mom of two young boys. I worked for an internationally known fashion company. I had a husband, an SUV, a big dog, and a home not too far from the beach. I had a family, friends, and obligations. I had plenty of joy, pain, laughter, and frustrations in every area of my life, as do most married working mothers. My life was complex. My cups were full. Then I found a lump in my right breast. Shortly thereafter came the diagnosis that would forever change my life: >Breast cancer, stage IIA.

My surgeon at the time assured me that breast conserving surgery was the industry standard for my type and stage. I got a second opinion just to cover all bases. I was stunned when the second surgeon felt the best option for me would be a bilateral mastectomy. She spoke of getting rid of my breasts no differently than tossing out an old bra. I understand that they meant nothing to her but I was quite fond of them! I couldn't even utter the word 'mastectomy' without having a panic attack. I was still deeply in denial about how serious this was and wanted to get my treatment over with as quick as possible and get on with my life so I went with breast conserving surgery.

During the years that followed, I became tougher and tougher – mentally and physically. As I came upon my second cancerversary, my fortieth birthday was looming just a month later, so I decided it was time to check something off my new bucket list. So I picked a date midway between those two milestones and made an appointment for a tattoo. My inner bad-ass was beaming. I was sitting in a tattoo parlor at nearly forty-years-old. The BIG 4-0 and here I was doing something that most rebellious teenagers do. I was getting inked.

'Yeah, I got this...'

That's what I thought when I crossed the threshold of the tattoo parlor. They were the same words that I thought each time I entered the chemo room, or the operating room, or the blood lab. It became my mantra. It buoyed my strength.

I told the tattoo artist exactly what I wanted. A black tribal shark, curling around my ankle bone, because sharks have adapted, thrived, and survived throughout history. And a Latin phrase, "Fluctuat nec mergitur" running up the outer edge of my left foot, which translates to, "She was tossed by the waves but she did not sink." It's an old naval phrase, the motto of the city of Paris, and a true reflection of all that I have survived. I wanted my ink. I wanted to tell my story. I am a fashionista...and I am a survivor.

Before he began, he looked at me and asked why I chose one of the most painful spots on the body. I answered, "Because either way it's going to hurt. How do I know if this hurts more or less than any other spot?" His face softened and he smiled and said, "Good point, I'll have to remember that."

After all that I have been through, the pain of a tattoo was nothing. As I sat there, the drone of the tattoo gun became soothing. When it was done, I felt empowered. I had my ink, a story to tell...and an addiction. I knew five minutes after getting the tattoo that there would be more. And I was right. To commemorate my fifth cancerversary, I walked back into the tattoo parlor to get wings put on my right wrist, my 'wings of freedom' from cancer.

And just six months after those life-affirming wings went on my wrist, I heard the words that no survivor wants to hear. The cancer was back. A routine MRI found an abnormality in my right breast...the same one that had cancer five and a half years prior. I was stunned, I was shocked, and more than anything, I was I really pissed off. I mean come on, I did everything right. Everything 'they' tell you to do, every item on every checklist in every cancer magazine I hit them all, damn it! This time would be different though. I had a better understanding of drug therapies, surgical options, and coping mechanisms. I knew my body well and I knew what it was capable of. I booked a haircut and a double mastectomy without even batting an eye. I planned out a yearlong treatment schedule with both my manager and my oncologist. I remained in control. I knew what to expect, and that was both a blessing and a curse.

On the one-year anniversary of my bilateral mastectomy, I found myself back at that tattoo parlor. On my upper right shoulder, I got 'There will be an answer, let it be' etched permanently. It's a song I've always loved and frequently thought during my treatments. I've finally realized that six years after this journey began, I need to step back and stop asking questions for which there are no answers. "Why me?", "Why breast cancer?", "Why wasn't once enough?" I'll never know. But what I do know is that in my journey I've made the ride a little smoother for other women like me. I've listened. I've opened. I made my mark. I am indelible.

I'm proud of and often amazed by how well my body has healed. In saving my life, my doctors have left behind many scars and markings I never asked for. So it became very important for me to put marks on my body that I chose. And while I agree that "scars are tattoos with better stories," I feel more empowered sitting in the chair listening to the droning buzz of the tattoo gun than I do knocked out cold on an operating room table.

My tats have become a road map of my life- reminding me of where I have been, how far I have come, and where I've yet to go.

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(Image courtesy of author)