December 11, 2012

How My Tattoo Gave Me My Life Back.

*Disclaimer: partial nudity


Never say never.

Isn’t that what people say? Never would I have cancer and never would I have a tattoo.

Well, I had cancer and I have a tattoo. Each changed my life and my body. Each was a mix of chance and luck. Never would I have thought something so wrong would turn out so right.

One late Friday afternoon, I received that phone call from my doctor. Exactly two weeks after that call, I woke up without a breast.

It was such a sight; never had I loved my body so much nor hated it as much. What was done was done.

My slow,  steady ascent to recovery began. Recuperation was arduous; rebuilding a body part was brutal. Four surgeries in a span of a year took its toll. Slowly, my body began to adapt. My mind, though, lagged behind less willing to play along. As the healing progressed, I had to wrap my brain around the new way my body looked. I would cringe as I looked at my new “breast” in the mirror. It was round, sure, perky, yes, but did it look like a breast? No. Scars spanned from my breastbone to my armpit.

Looking kindly at my body was not something I was ever really good at and now acclimating to my new body seemed insurmountable. I kept waiting for the miracle surgery, the one I would wake up after and feel myself again.

Then came the last step of the reconstruction, billed as the ticket to self-acceptance. A pink tattooed circle would complete the picture. I was delirious and I was spent. My mind had been playing a multitude of games desperately searching for an answer. Was this the answer? Was this the thing that was going to put Humpty back together? Anything, I thought, anything to finish this and feel normal again.

My plastic surgeon was certainly talented with a scalpel and sutures but I decided to book an appointment with a tattoo artist to put the cherry on top, so to speak. An appointment I was actually looking forward to.

On the day of my first consult, my heart got a little warmer. The studio was filled with life, vibrant in-your-face lavish color and energy. Just being there was revitalizing. Even though I was there for a pink circle of ink, I still felt a bit like a rebel.

Ram, the owner and talented artist kindly welcomed me. His tender eyes and genuine, quiet smile helped calm the insecurity rumbling inside. After a quick introduction we began talking about why I was there. We were both talking tattoo, but different tattoo. It never even occurred to me to have him ink anything other than a realistic representation on my breast. And for Ram, he was thinking anything but that. Wait, really? When I grasped our miscommunication, a window opened, the clouds cleared and I suddenly was on the other side of cancer. This was immense.

Why try to make it look like something it is not? Why not celebrate what it is?

I went home with a mission. I poured through everything tattoo related: magazines, history books, the Internet and of course, every human example I could find. My options were endless. I kept coming back to the black Polynesian tribal design, simple organic black shapes that represent courage, but also act as a talisman. As I face my future, both of these are needed.

Photo: Peter McGowan

Filled with ideas and drawings in hand, I arrived for my next appointment. Ram quickly combined my examples, my concerns and my breast shape into a complete design. The drawing was a simple flower shape for the areola surrounded by thin graceful lines of leaves and vines with a complementary pattern of descending dots. Ram had listened very closely and the drawing was proof. It was right on.

The preparation was done and it was time. A joyful anticipation graced the room while the music played and my supporters looked on. Ram traced the drawing on with carbon paper to make sure it was right. The smiles in the room were a good omen. Finally, it was my turn to see. Nervous and excited, I sat up to look in the mirror. For the first time in over a year, I did not cringe, but smiled whole-heartedly. It was perfect. It was so me. He was brilliant and I was in tears. As I positioned myself on the table to make it permanent, a sense of lightness and acceptance filled me.

Photo: Peter McGowan

The weight of cancer sunk away. For two hours Ram meticulously needled the ink into my skin. His soothing calm and respect relieved any anxiety in the room. Almost effortlessly I lay topless on the table unafraid. After the last wipe of ink was cleaned off, I sat up and turned directly to the mirror. I wept. I smiled.

Dainty, simple, graceful lines danced across my breast covering all that had come before. Dots repeated themselves; a leaf peeked out of my underarm and a dense yet delicate flower held court in the middle. Each part so elegantly accentuated the shape of my breast. My perspective changed in that instant; I could not stop looking, smiling, floating. This gamble, this chance, this risk changed my world spectacularly, putting a new me together.

It was truly me.

And I felt beautiful.


Heather Hobler is an occasional yoga teacher, always a mother, an artist who manipulates books, a cyclist and paddler who raises funds to fight cancer, a swimmer of high tides, and a very grateful cancer survivor. Heather wrote this blog http://formydadandforme.wordpress.com to accompany her recovery, training and fundraising all to honor her dad’s and her lives, she will start it up again after the new year.




Editor: Dareni Wellman

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