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The Healing Power of Ink

Warning: Some of the photos within this post may be considered graphic by some readers.

“When I first saw the finished piece I lost it,” breast cancer survivor Deanna Cummaro recalled of her mastectomy tattoo. “I would tear up just staring at the beauty of it. Getting the tattoo became an amazing, beautifying experience. Looking at the tattoo makes me think that’s cool, that’s badass. Excuse my language but it says ‘Fuck you cancer!’”

The most important tool in fighting cancer is proper medical care but doctors and medicine are far from the only thing needed to rebuild a person who has been ravaged by cancer. In the case of breast cancer, especially when a mastectomy is required, the healing process extends to both emotional and physical wounds. As Cummaro recovered from a double mastectomy she found that the good deeds of two benevolent strangers—tattoo artist Kelly Torres and photographer Tina Quatroni—made a world of difference as she began to rebuild her life.

When Torres tattooed her chest and Quatroni photographed the experience it was as if the pain that Cummaro had endured throughout her treatment had all been taken away. During the process the three women forged a bond and a friendship that will last for years. That experience served as the last step on the long road to recovery that Cummaro began travelling with her diagnosis in 2010.

After visiting the doctor complaining of chest pains Cummaro was given the diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), a rare form of the disease that doesn’t express the receptors normally targeted by chemotherapy thus making it more difficult to treat, in September 2010. Due to the aggressive nature of TNBC the best option available to Cummaro was the most aggressive – a double mastectomy followed by chemotherapy.

Kelly Torres tattooing Deanna Cummaro.

Kelly Torres tattooing Deanna Cummaro.

“When I was given the diagnosis my reaction was to say what do we need to do to fight it?” Cummaro said. “I went home and told my family don’t get your panties in a bunch because I’m going to kick cancer’s ass and show it who is boss because it’s messing with the wrong bitch.”

Cummaro pleaded with her family to not shed any tears as she prepared to fight the disease, she would need their strength to get through the ordeal.

“I embraced the whole thing and looked for the positive in everything,” Cummaro explained. “I get new boobs, I get new hair, and I get a do-over. You either let shit get to you or you hold your head up high and show cancer who is boss. I chose the later.”

Cummaro made sure to keep things light-hearted; instead of letting her hair fall out she threw a head shaving party, when she could have dreaded going to chemotherapy she opted to have a blast with her “Chemo buddies.” As a single mother who was putting herself through school Cummaro somehow found a way to balance everything with her treatment and still graduate on the president’s list. On the surface there were only two ways people could tell that Cummaro was going through a life-and-death struggle; either she opened up and told them about her affliction or if they saw the scars left behind from the surgery.

Early stages of Cummaro's tattoo.

Early stages of Cummaro's tattoo.

The severity of a double mastectomy and the scars that it leaves behind create a very powerful image that can often be difficult for a survivor to come to terms with. As a tattoo artist Torres knew that she would be able to use her trade to help a woman recover from the surgery and decided to offer her services over social media.

“So many women have crossed my path in the last decade that have been diagnosed with breast cancer,” Torres said. “I feel like I have this vehicle to give someone a gift that money can’t buy, it would be great to give a woman a gift so she could feel whole again.”

Torres wanted to be absolutely sure that she was giving this gift to the perfect candidate. The first factor that had to be considered was whether or not the scars would be able to be tattooed since keloidal scars are difficult to tattoo and will often fail to hold the ink. More importantly Torres wanted to make sure that the recipient would properly appreciate the ink.

“Within five minutes of meeting Deanna I knew she was the one,” Torres said. “I couldn’t have chosen a better person. She has such a wonderful outlook on her whole experience and is very deserving of the gift.”

A jubilant Cummaro after Torres finished inking her.

A jubilant Cummaro after Torres finished inking her.

Quatroni first heard about the idea while she was getting an old tattoo covered up by Torres. Given her personal history with cancer—the grandmother who raised her passed away after battling the disease—Quatroni knew that she wanted to participate in any way she could. By photographing the tattooing process that Cummaro was about to undergo Quatroni would be able to “stop time” for her.

“I love stopping time, to me it’s the most amazing thing in the world,” Quatroni explained. “For a person like Deanna, who almost had no more time in this world it was an honor to be able to give her something. She almost lost all of her time on this planet and I’m able to give her bits and pieces of time that she will have forever.”

The experience would provide a series of “firsts” for the women involved; it was the first time Torres tattooed a breast cancer survivor, the first time that Quatroni documented a person being tattooed and most notably it was the first time Cummaro was tattooed.

“I knew nothing about tattoo artists, I knew nothing about where to get a tattoo, I knew nothing,” Cummaro recalled with a laugh. “I met with Kelly and told her my ideas about what I wanted and gave her leeway to run with it. I told her don’t take what I want as set in stone; I don’t know what I want since I’ve never done this before.”

Torres works on the fine details of the piece.

Torres works on coloring the piece.

Cummaro had a slew of ideas that she wanted to be incorporated into the tattoo, each one representing a specific part of her journey from diagnosis to recovery. While Torres originally imagined doing a simple floral piece she had to figure out a way to work in all of the elements that Cummaro was hoping for, a task that the tattooer undertook with relish.

“Kelly told me that I could do whatever I wanted; she didn’t care how intricate it was or how simple it was,” Cummaro explained. “She didn’t care how long it took and she said if I didn’t like it when she was finished that she would fix it for me. All she wanted to do was make sure I feel beautiful. She’s amazing.”

Both Torres and Quatroni were driven to make sure that Cummaro would come out of the tattooing process self-assured and confident that she was still beautiful despite the scars.

“I had never seen scarring like that,” Quatroni said. “It was hard to see at first. I learned as I was with her—shooting her and watching as her beauty came out—the scars became this beautiful thing instead of an ugly and odd thing. She shows off the scars so freely and I feel like I would be so embarrassed and ashamed. She just shows none of those feelings and she inspired me.”

It’s that positive way of looking at things no matter the circumstances that has allowed Cummaro to inspire those around her. The scars on Cummaro’s chest tell the tale of her battle with cancer; prior to getting the tattoo the story appeared to be one of pain and struggle but with the ink it becomes a tale of survival and defiance in the face of a potentially fatal disease.

Now that her chest has been tattooed by Torres Cummaro revels every time she has an opportunity to share it with people. The reactions that she has received are priceless as it is near impossible for her loved ones to avoid becoming choked up while gazing at the beautiful artwork. Quatroni was also awed by the work that Torres had done and could barely wait until it was healed to have Cummaro into her studio for a photo shoot. Quatroni didn’t want to do anything fancy with the shoot, by keeping things simple she could turn the focus entirely on Cummaro.

“I’ve never seen someone so flirty with the camera and so loving of the moment,” Quatroni said. “When Kelly was done tattooing her it was like this beautiful Picasso. I don’t even notice the scars anymore, her boobies became wings. I told her to flex her pec muscles and it makes the wings fly, it’s so freakin’ awesome, it’s so inspiring. Her body communicates this art.”

Cummaro poses for Quatrino.

Cummaro poses for Quatroni.

Thanks to the experience the three women have had together their lives became intertwined and friendships have been forged. Each of the three of them has been able to find inspiration in the others.

“Deanna opens your eyes up to see how you cannot let something like cancer kill you,” Quatroni said. “She just makes you want to be strong because of what she has done. I will never stop knowing her; she definitely left an impact and a mark on my life. She gives me that feeling that as long as you believe you can accomplish anything in life.”

Recently Cummaro celebrated a major milestone by going three years without a recurrence of cancer; the possibility of recurrence of TNBC drops dramatically after that mark. While there is always a possibility of the cancer returning Cummaro won’t let that prospect slow her down as she gets on with her life, a life that has been touched and enhanced by the generosity of Torres and Quatroni.

“Kelly and Tina are two of the most beautiful women I have ever met,” Cummaro said. “I guarantee that they both came out of this a different person just like I have. I told Kelly and Tina that I wanted to show people that you could be beautiful and sexy after breast cancer. Those shots (that Quatroni took) are so powerful because Tina knew exactly how to capture it. It’s fierce.

“That how you need to be when cancer strikes, you need to be fierce and powerful,” Cummaro continued. “I hope that somebody who is going through cancer reads my story and is able to realize it’s not so bad after all. Sure, it sucks, but life goes on and you can still enjoy life. Actually, you end up enjoying life even more. I thought that I enjoyed the small things before but going though this increased it tenfold.”

Photo by Tina Quatroni

Cummaro showing off the finished product.