University of Pennsylvania Health System

Focus on Cancer

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tattoos: The Last Step in My Journey to Wholeness

In this guest post from her own personal blog, Jane reflects on her choice to get nipple and areola tattoos as part of breast reconstruction following a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy.

For as long as I can remember, I've been a straight arrow. Growing up, I kept my room neat, did my homework and chose as my friends similarly minded. I did what I was supposed to do, completed what I started, wore little makeup, didn't get my ears pierced until middle school, and never, ever considered getting a tattoo.

Fast-forward four decades.

Not much about my personality has changed, but I do have two tattoos, and when they faded to the point that they were nearly invisible, I chose to have them redone. Don’t bother looking for a decorative rosebud on my shoulder, an alluring bird behind my ear or an inspiring phrase in Latin inked down my spine, however. You won’t find any such tattoos on my skin. In fact, it’s not likely that you’ll ever see my tattoos at all.

That’s because I chose to get nipple and areola tattoos as the final step in the reconstruction of my breasts after I had a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy several years ago.

Like Angelina Jolie, I’d tested positive for a BRCA gene mutation, and this genetic defect – which is 10 times more prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews than in the general population – significantly increased my lifetime risk of developing breast, ovarian and several other types of cancer.

I always knew I’d get the tattoos – so much so that I never even considered not getting them, despite my straight-arrow personality. They were a part of the plan from the beginning, relieving me of the need to research and ponder all the options; list the pros and cons of each; and think, rethink and over-think my decision a thousand times. I’d already done all of that in making the choice to have the prophylactic bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction in the first place.

All told, I had three separate surgeries over the course of 18 months.

Individually and collectively, they took a tremendous toll on my body and on me, and the scars – both physical and emotional – remain. Although they continue to heal a bit each day, I’m not sure they’ll ever fade completely.

15 months after the last surgery, my body finally was ready for the tattooing. Once the tattoos healed, I could hardly believe the incredible power they had to transform my transplanted tissue mounds into breasts. For the first time since my mastectomy, my “faux” breasts looked like real breasts, and my body looked complete. More than transforming my breasts or completing my body, my tattoos restored the rest of me – my spirit, my soul, my deepest self – to wholeness.

Although I will never again be the person I was before my BRCA test, I’m still a straight arrow – with tattoos. Every day, they remind me of the strength and courage it took for me to change my life’s course to ensure that my genetics would not dictate my destiny. My tattoos remind me, too, that the path I’m on is the right one for me, that I’m lucky to be where I am, and that the same strength and courage that helped guide me on that journey to wholeness continue to guide me today.

Jane E. Herman, is a BRCA2 mutation carrier and volunteers as an Outreach Coordinator for FORCE: Facing our Risk of Cancer Empowered in New York City and blogs regularly about her BRCA journey and other slices of her life at JanetheWriter Writes… 

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