Thinking about tattoos and cancer

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

JULY 17, 2019

Cancer Free Tattoo on Young MotherProbably tattoos and cancer are not an obvious pairing for most people, but, for those in the know, there are a number of connections. Probably the most common are the tiny dot tattoos that are inked during the planning session before radiation therapy. We are advised not to later have them lasered/removed as they provide a permanent map of the radiation field. As you likely know, it is dangerous to have radiation to the same spot more than once, so this is important. Radiation tattoos are so small that, if you have any freckles or moles or any shade darker than lily white skin, they are practically invisible anyway.

I have heard a few sweet stories of women noting another woman's chest tattoos and bonding over their shared radiation experience. It is unlikely that anyone without a matching set would notice or recognize them, so you can consider it your badge of a special club. (And how is that for a positive spin?)

"Normal" tattoos are also sometimes a cancer accompaniment. Many of us collect scars as part of our cancer treatment, generally from surgery. They come in all shapes and sizes and can be anywhere on our bodies. Some people are able to view them as symbols of their courage and experience while others would prefer to camouflage them. Do you know the line from the Carly Simon song: It takes a very big man to love a very big scar. I love those words and my man who fits the description.

Body art tattoos are sometimes chosen as an important image to mark the end of cancer treatment. People opt for symbols that are meaningful to them and may have them over a scar or in a more visible place on their body.

If, however, you would prefer to disguise a scar, tattoos are a terrific option. There are tattoo artists who specialize in medical tattoos and can even create 3-D images with ink. For example, they can ink such an image on a reconstructed breast mound so it looks very much like a natural areola and nipple. They can even do it in your color of choice, and I have seen a few delightfully unique and colorful nipples.

Have you ever seen the famous poster of a one-breasted woman, arms open and face upturned to the sun? Her bare chest and arms are powerfully muscled, and an elaborate tattoo of a beautiful vine covers her mastectomy scar. If you look online, you can find many images of women flaunting gorgeous tattoos after mastectomies.. Some cover the scars, while others are the size of a camisole and completely cover the chest.

For years, I had that poster in my office and many women commented positively about it. However, one women wrote me a note a few weeks after our meeting to express her distress and dismay about the picture. Her reaction reminded me that I need always to remember that different people have different reactions and opinions and it is not safe to assume that everyone will share my sensibilities. I called to apologize to her, but I did not remove the poster from my wall.

If this sounds tantalizing, but a permanent tattoo does not really appeal to you, remember that there are temporary ones than can be purchased online. For very little money, you can adorn yourself and your scars with fireworks or flowers or stars or any images of your choice. And then you can wash them off.

Do you have or have you considered getting a tattoo after cancer? Share your story

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.