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Turning scars into a tattoo helped me reclaim my body from cancer’s cruelty

After breast cancer surgery left Karen with scars, she put the empowering lessons of an ancient Japanese art into practice and sought out the skills of a talented tattoo artist.

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Suddenly I was confronted with a radically different body

When I was initially diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma and DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) in July 2018 I’d never had any kind of surgery. In the four months that followed, I had three operations. When two lumpectomies failed to get the clear margin of cancer-free tissue that was required, I needed a mastectomy and immediate DIEP reconstruction, an operation that took 12 hours as surgeons used tissue from my stomach to reconstruct a breast mound.

Suddenly I was confronted with a body that looked radically different from the one I’d had a few months before. A long scar ran hip to hip across my stomach, and a circular one sat in the centre of my reconstructed breast, with flat tissue where my nipple and areola had once been.  

I struggled to accept the marks cancer left on my skin

Even once the scars had faded from their initial raised and angry red appearance to a paler, flatter form, I struggled to comprehend and accept the marks that cancer had left on my skin. I found it hard to carry out the daily scar massage that was necessary, distracting myself by watching TV while I massaged, rather than looking in the mirror. My mind skittered away from recognising and accepting those scars as part of the new me and I held much at bay, pushing it down.

My physical and emotional scars were a permanent marker of the path cancer traced across my skin and my life. 

Embracing the healing power of an ancient art

Then I learnt about ‘kintsugi’, which translates as ‘golden joinery’. A Japanese art form, kintsugi is focused on repairing broken items of pottery with a lacquer mixed with gold powder. By using golden glue, those joins where the broken pieces have been put back together aren’t hidden or disguised, but embraced and celebrated. The philosophy of kintsugi says that the breaks, and the subsequent repair, should not be ignored, but valued as evidence of the hard history of that item. 

By adding gold, that history - the cracks and the struggle to bring about repair - make the broken item of crockery even more beautiful than before. Kintsugi recognises the fragility of the broken piece, but also testifies to its strength by making the new bonds glow, celebrating what holds them together.  

To me, this is one of the most beautiful concepts that cancer survivors can apply to themselves. With kintsugi in mind, I try to accept my scars, both those visible on my skin and those hidden in my heart and mind, as evidence of my fragility and my strength.

Alongside the suffering, these scars, these breaks in the pottery also show endurance, strength, resilience, determination and, we hope, recovery. Our scars are part of our cancer and life history. And they make us aware that we are vulnerable but precious, fragile but capable of repair.  

For the first time since surgery, I can love my body’s reflection in the mirror

After my mastectomy and reconstruction left me without a nipple and areola, I knew that I didn’t want a physical nipple reconstruction or a nipple tattoo. While a lot of women feel these procedures offer a wonderful sense of completion, it wasn’t for me. 

But with the philosophy of kintsugi in mind, I started exploring the idea of an artistic tattoo to cover my breast scars. I went from never having even considered or wanted a tattoo, to diving into a world of tattoo research. I became fascinated by the stunning skin-inked artwork that women had chosen as their own bold, beautiful stamp to put on their cancer-scarred bodies.

Time and time again I was drawn back to the work of one artist, Dom Holmes, whose mandala-like designs wove complex images out of pristine and pure lines of black ink. Eventually, I found the courage to reach out to Dom and start a tentative conversation about what a scar-covering tattoo would look like for me. Dom took on board my obsession with the swoops, curls and curves of both peacock feathers and the art of Aubrey Beardsley, and created a design that combined both into an elegant filigree of lacy lines, sitting around my reconstructed breast like a gossamer bra.

I cried when I saw it and cried again after the five-hour tattoo session that transferred the design from page to breast. For the first time since my surgery in 2018, I could look at my body in a mirror and love what I saw reflected back at me.  

This tattoo is a symbol of my fragility and strength

Dom and other post-mastectomy tattoo artists out there have a beautiful respect and compassion for the women they’re inking, acknowledging the emotional need that brought the women to their doors. They know that for me, and so many of these women, the artistic covering of their scars is a reclaiming of power and ownership, a hopeful closing of the cancer chapter of life.

I see a scar-covering tattoo as a contemporary body-art form of kintsugi. While moving on is always going to be hard when you bear scars, maybe with a glint of gold in my post-cancer wounds, be it real tattoo ink or metaphorical mind-glue, I can continue the process of healing and re-forming into a new, fragile but resilient, kintsugi-d me.  

 

Karen has recently been appointed as the new lay person on the NICE breast cancer committee, an opportunity she got through being a Breast Cancer Voice.

As a member of our Breast Cancer Voices community, Karen shares her experiences to help others. You too can use your experiences and views as someone who’s been affected by breast cancer, to help shape and improve work in this field.

You can find out about opportunities to get involved, as well as research studies you may be able to take part in, by joining our Voices community.

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