I am drafting this on a flight back to Palm Beach from San Diego, and it was the *hardest* part of my journey. My husband and I wanted to be private about this, but I think we both are feeling okay with me sharing it now.
For the past couple months, I’ve been feeling really depressed about my appearance, more than usual. I tried a lot of things to help ease my frustration and anxiety from cancer’s physical impacts, but nothing seemed to work. Then a few weeks ago, I watched a video on Facebook that showcased women getting tattoos to cover their mastectomy scars. It was then that I decided a mastectomy tattoo was right for me. I thought if I didn’t have to look at the scars and discoloration, I could finally move on with my “new normal” life.
Gary and I did A LOT of research before we decided to take this leap of faith. We looked at artists from all over the country, and even abroad. In my opinion, not all tattoo artists are mastectomy tattoo artists. I believe it takes a special, experienced tattoo artist to take on something as monumental as this. I was really touched by Shane Wallin’s work and what people said about him. Shane, and his wife Toni, own Garnet Tattoo in San Diego and Twilight Tattoo in Minneapolis.
One night at dinner, I turned to Gary and said, “This is our guy.” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Okay, well if that’s our guy, then that’s our guy…book the tickets.” I called Shane’s wife and she squeezed me into his very tight schedule. At his other shop in Minneapolis, there is a year and a half wait. Why so long? Because he is that freaking good…
Shane is not just in the tattoo business, he’s in the business of changing lives – and he changed mine forever. In one, 9-hour grueling session (that Gary almost stopped four times), Shane made me pretty again and restored my self-confidence in my body image. I wanted to tap out six hours into it, but I kept going for Gary. He’s my rock, and at the moment, I’m one of Shane’s favorite pieces of work.
Cancer and chemotherapy/radiation had taken so much from me, and now it was this excruciating pain all over again (but far worse than what I have ever felt). I have plenty of tattoos; however, this was by far the most painful. At times, Gary had to tightly hold my hand and wipe the tears from my face, but Shane kept going as fast as he could. I’m not ashamed to say I threw up at the end, something I haven’t done with any other tattoo.
Aside from his normal appointments, Shane participates in the annual “P.Ink Day”. P.Ink is an organization that gets tattoo artists and cancer patients/survivors together for free tattooing. They typically help 50 people on that day all over the country. P.Ink even has an app where you can try on different tattoos, called Inkspiration, either using a photo of yourself or a silhouette in various scar configurations. The app is what got me really inspired because it made me see how my VERY asymmetrical breasts could be made symmetrical again. From my own experience, I don’t see someone so disfigured anymore when I look in the mirror: I see a work of art.
If you want to do this, I have some tips. I don’t care how many tattoos you have already – shush yourself and listen up. This was not like ANY tattoo I have had before. Tattooing over my scars was the WORST, and that’s ironic and poetic all at the same time. I would do it all over again (but don’t tell Gary or Shane I said that) because I am so damn happy with the results.
- It’s not a bad idea to see your doctor, especially your reconstructive surgeon, before you book your appointment or even make a final decision. If it’s possible that you’re not a candidate for a mastectomy tattoo, for whatever reason, you don’t want to get your hopes up ahead of time. If you’re not fully in remission, like me, you definitely need to see your doctor.
- Get a good night’s sleep and lay off the booze the night before (and day of). Alcohol will make you bleed more, and make it hurt more. Don’t listen to the drunken sailor myths.
- Apply a generous amount of lidocaine where you’re being tattooed, and cover yourself in Saran Wrap, one hour prior to your appointment. If you choose Shane as your artist, Toni will remind you to do this. Actually, Toni is pretty fantastic at reminding you of everything you need to do – down to what you should eat the day of. I can tell you this: lidocaine is NOT your friend once the tattoo is in full swing and your skin is “open”, but I think it helped when we got started.
- Wrap yourself in Saran Wrap for the flight home. If you get it done local, you won’t have this problem. If you go to Shane, all your supplies can be found at CVS close to his San Diego shop, including your “after tattoo” wine.
- Don’t go alone. It’s bad enough you were alone in an operating room when you got those scars, and woke up to a friendly nurse offering you crackers. Oh, and don’t take your mother…too much sympathy is never a good thing. My mom explicitly told me she would have not been able to handle it.
- Book way in advance and schedule several sessions, if you’re getting a big piece. You’re not going to be able to pop in the day after you decide you want to do this. The tattoo “virgins” need several sessions, for sure. I can’t imagine someone, who has never had one before, doing everything in one session. If you’re just doing a 3-D nipple, you should only need one session.
- Do your research to find an artist, especially if you never had a tattoo. As I stated before, Shane’s work spoke to me and that’s why I chose him. Look at the work of different tattoo artists, especially in the P.Ink network (link is below). They specialize in dealing with the emotional and physical needs of breast cancer survivors and current patients.
- Choose something that is uniquely you, and be honest. Shane and I had a consult the day before to discuss what I wanted. It’s the first time I ever met him in person, so I knew I had to be very honest. I told him what I did and did not like. I ended up with exactly what I asked for because Shane and I communicated openly. If you have something in mind, pictures are very helpful to your artist so don’t feel like you’re intruding on their artistic license by bringing them.
For the sake of my job, and out of respect for the privacy of my family, I won’t be posting pictures of my mastectomy tattoo. However, you can see examples of Shane’s transformative work at his websites:
Follow on Instagram @shanewallintattoo and @mastectomytattoo
Here are some really good articles that talk about Shane’s work:
To get involved with P.Ink or make a donation to support “P.Ink Day”:
Inkspiration is available in the Apple App Store. I don’t believe there is a version for Android yet.