Tattoos and Cancer

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

JUNE 06, 2018

Tattoos and cancer are linked in several ways. There are the small dot tattoos that are inked during planning for radiation therapy. We are told not to later have them removed, so there will always be a permanent record of the radiation field. Some people ignore that advice and are eager to have them lasered away.

There are tattoo artists who specialize in “medical tattoos” and can create 3-D images to very much look like a areola and nipple on a breast mound. They can also tattoo a color of choice onto a reconstructed nipple; I have seen blue ones and green ones and many pink to red to brown ones.

“Normal” tattoos, the body-decorating type, are not infrequently a part of someone’s cancer choices. After treatment is done, I have known a few people who opted for a celebratory tattoo, an image that marked this accomplishment or was symbolic of something/someone important. I have known many more people who have chosen to get a tattoo as a way to camouflage a cancer scar. Have you ever seen the famous poster of the one-breasted women, arms spread and face upturned to the sun, who has an elaborate vine and leaves tattooed over the flat side of her chest? She is the very picture of strength and determination. I had this poster in my office for years and most people resonated to it positively. One woman, however, wrote me a note after our single appointment (and might this have been the reason that she never came back?) to say how offended she had been.

Tattoos can cover a flat chest or a misshapen breast post-surgery or scars on virtually any part of the body. In addition to their look, they can be symbolic of any important feeling. Matching pictures with a spouse or dear friend can be a reminder of that important relationship. A picture of anything beautiful and representative of life may be much more appealing than a scar line.

If this sounds tantalizing, but not really for you, remember that there are temporary tattoos that can be easily purchased online. That way, you can painlessly add a picture that will last several weeks.

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