frozen pea friday: touched by a tattoo

getting my tattoo was the culmination of a three year dance with breast cancer. the tattoo changed my mastectomy scar into my shield – pam huntley

a friend of mine is considering getting a tattoo after her mastectomy. ah, i thought, that’ll be a fun entry! let’s have a few pretty, colourful pictures of tattoos!

i can be so naïve sometimes.

for some strange reason, the obvious was not immediately obvious to me: that by just gently touching the subject, i would open a spider’s nest of body modification, questions about pornography, stories of sleepless nights over what seemed lost feminity, courageous leaps into unknown sexual territory, feminist thoughts on art, anthropology, books about tattooed people (from holocaust survivors to carnies to respectable ladies to, yes, breast cancer survivors), and, and, and.

and triumph! in 2002, breast cancer survivor june gladney took part in a science fiction conference that featured a masquerade. she appeared as an amazon goddess:

i turned full-face toward the audience… my daughters tell me that the roar erupted as a wave across the auditorium as i turned … and they caught sight of the scar and the dragon tattooed across my left side. … it seemed that the whole audience was on their feet, cheering, applauding, screaming, some in tears. the back-stage crew was applauding; lots of tears and hugs.

i was overwhelmed. i had never expected anything like that!

many people came up to me later during the convention to thank me for my bravery in doing such a daring presentation. some told me they needed to see a real-life scar which wasn’t that bad. most promised to get the necessary tests done. several had been putting it off for years, dreading what they might hear.

(read here for the rest of the story, told by the photographer)

june’s experience must have started with fear, too. i imagine the journey from dread to diagnosis, then the decision to have surgery, the surgery itself and the recovery, all the thinking that must have gone into saying no to reconstruction. pondering over images for the tattoo. getting the tattoo done. flashbacks at that moment perhaps to the surgery.

as i’m imagining this, i, someone who does not have cancer, also wonder, finally aloud for all my readers to hear: why do i keep writing about this? it all started with desiring to contribute to my friends with cancer, and breast cancer in particular, with thinking that it would be fun and useful to be part of the frozen pea friday movement. but it has gotten bigger.

these images of women (and men; they can get breast cancer, too) are not just in your face, dear reader, they’re also in mine and they urge me to admit that i need to look at this. why do i keep writing about this, despite the facts that a) i don’t particularly enjoy “having” to write about a specific topic at the rate of once a week, b) almost every one of these posts presents me with some sort of hurdle, and that, c) judging from the number of comments, it doesn’t seem to be my most widely read topic here. why don’t i just say, okay, that was fun, now on to something else? (and i’m not saying that i won’t do that but so far i’ve stuck with it).

perhaps there is some survivors guilt, or is it confusion? how come these friends of mine were touched (swiped! whacked over the head!) by cancer and i wasn’t? (yet?) perhaps it’s some deep superstition: if i write about it, i won’t get it. perhapstattoo by larissa at frever art by writing about it i can come to grips with the irriversability of cancer. and maybe i am finally admitting to myself that despite my supposed high level of comfort with death and dying, i, too, need to come to understand my own mortality.

there is something atavistic about these tattoos, something that literally goes much, much beyond skin level. and it has touched me and said, “girl, you need to look at this.”


  1. I’ll be interested to hear your reflections on why you keep on with the topic.

    I do think it is an important and worthwhile topic.

    I hadn’t heard about tattoos as a response to breast cancer. It’s inspiring! And that it raises all kinds of issues is great.

    So thanks for a great post and I am looking forward to hearing your further reflections.

  2. Great post Isabella. I think that when one friend “gets” cancer, we all get it. Each of my friends were deeply touched and moved to do things a little differently and look at their mortality when I looked death in the face. And we all came out of it stronger and closer, and maybe understanding ourselves a bit better. Keep up the Frozen Pea posting – you are doing a lot of good!

    Hayley Townley’s last blog post..Thematic Photographic – WOOD

  3. thanks for all your comments, people. yes, @evan, i will have to think and write a reflective post about that. i suspect it’s been quite a while coming but somehow this tattoo post brought it out in the open!

    @sandra, yes, there’s something very, very powerful about tattooing one’s scar.

    @hayley, your comment means a lot to me on this post …

  4. breast cancer – anyone can get it – even me! I’m not quite ready for the tattoo yet -it’s only been 3 months since my mastectomy, and the nerves have calmed down a lot, but not yet enough.

    thank you for this post, isabella. it underlines for me why i am not rushing headlong to get the tattoo done right away – very soon i will be searching for the right image, and that may trigger another round of tears and meltdowns…

    and I’m one of the lucky ones… no further treatment required after the mastectomy… no complications after the surgery… but I still lost a breast. and I was afraid of worse, for about 5 months.

    i never believed it would kill me, but i was afraid of what would happen if a doctor made an error.

    jael’s last blog post..Fuse

  5. Wow! Thanks for pointing out this post.

    Can’t believe there are still women ignoring the risk of breast cancer when a simple test can give you peace of mind.

    My wife gets the booby squeeze on a regular basis, praise be.

    I love the idea of a tattoo. Cheers to those brave women.

    Todd Jordan’s last blog post..Pathwords Tips

  6. thanks everyone – whymommie, jael, annie, todd …

    i have to confess that i’m always a bit slow on getting my mammogram.

    okay! i’ll schedule one this week!

  7. Hello!

    I found your blog while looking up resources for breast cancer patients, and thought you might be interested in a woman who’s taken a pretty unique path in her own cancer battle. Meg Gaffney is a nurse, and when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided to skip chemotherapy and radiation, and go right to a bilateral mastectomy. But when her plastic surgeon recommended a skin graft surgery to build up new nipples, she decided to incorporate art into her own personal healing process.

    For Meg, that means getting nipples tattooed onto her body instead of the graft surgery, and now — after months of searching for an artist willing to take on her challenge — she’s about to get the work done!

    We’re 8 parts into a documentary on Meg, which is featured on I’d love for you to check it out and let me know what you think!

    Meg is dynamic, creative, and completely committed to ridding the world of cancer, and her spirit is contagious.

    Thanks for your time, and best luck in your own journey!

    Katy Widrick
    Executive Producer,

  8. I’ve never heard of anyone doing this type of thing before.

    How wonderful and inspiring to see you be so triumphant in the face of adversity.

  9. Courage and motivation are most wonderful aspect of our life. Truly I have never seen or heard something similar. I am wondering why we don’t have such motivation and ambition all around the world. I shall talk about it on my most active blog.

  10. I have a friend who suffered from a brain tumor. She wears a wig now. Her hair are not healthy because of the treatments she get. It’s good to know that breast cancer patents also have a hope now with this solution. Thanks for sharing the information.

  11. Great article. It’s really nice to see people enjoying their lives after a cancer. By the way I love the designs of the tattoos. Very beautiful.

  12. Nice post. This story is so touching because my wife had cancer and she’s recovering from it now. Thanks for sharing the information.

  13. I didn’t realize this was a trend for women with cancer. I can see how it could be empowering for some people, but may not be the choice that others make. I appreciate your letting us know about this.

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