"I can say for sure that having some control over what that area looks like and getting to express myself artistically at the same time has been the best post-cancer gift to myself."

Photography by Peter Roessler

Words by Gina Tron

Tattoos saved me from drowning in the whirlpool of insecurities that I waded in after having breast cancer.

I only had stage one but the tumors were rudely located. I'd have to, at the very least, lose my left nipple so I opted to remove both, and both breasts, for symmetry and to avoid future cancer. At age 33, my nipples were replaced with iridescent horizontal lines streaked across the ghosts of my breasts. I hated looking in the mirror. I felt like I lost control over my body and my personal aesthetic.

I fell into a depressive state during the months and months of reconstruction surgeries and I struggled with suicidal thoughts. I felt like less of a human, less worthy, de-sexualized. It’s hard to be breast-less in a superficial world that values looks and sexuality first. I didn't notice until those parts of me were ripped off.

Who the hell would want to see me naked now, I asked. Self-confidence was already tough enough before my double mastectomy. I had only begun to feel comfortable in my own skin around age 30. Even still, it’s always been a challenge. Now what the hell was I going to do? I thought of my mother too, who after her first round of cancer, never wanted to be photographed anymore. I felt like I was now literally scarred by my worst fears. When I was younger I always knew it was likely I’d get breast cancer, just like my mother. She first had it when she was 42 and she talked about it coming back to kill her constantly. She died eight years later.

Was I doomed to repeat my mother’s decline of confidence post-cancer?

I vowed to not let that happen and I knew needed to find a way to reclaim my body. To heal, I first had to embrace the fact that I’m pretty vain. It’s a vain world and we’re all products of it. I concluded that I needed to play with my aesthetic to move forward, in addition to undergoing therapy and other self-care endeavors. Aesthetic has always been important to me. As a child, I’d watch television just to jot down what people were wearing. Shiny, loud fabrics pulled me towards them like magnets. I later worked as a stylist on fashion shoots, interned with a designer, and worked for years as a creative director for fashion shows. For a decade, my default look was platinum blonde hair but often I’d dye it blue or lilac or pink. Playing around with my image was always a favorite past-time.

A little after my 36th birthday, I decided to invest in tattoo art. There were a lot of options to consider and mostly people would suggest getting nipples inked on. But, when friends would send me links to 3D nipple tattoos, I’d cringe. I think they are wonderful but for myself, I didn’t want to create the illusion of something I didn’t have anymore. I knew I didn’t want that. In fact, I didn’t want any traditional mastectomy scar coverups, either. As beautiful as so many of those are, they reminded me too much of cancer and they would personally make me feel too much like a victim. I wanted to continue to be my lively and sometimes obnoxious self. I didn’t want to feel like a sick person, like a cancer person. It’s a concept too entwined with the darkest days of my life. I wanted the average person to look at me and think I’m vibrant, bright. I felt a more fun, and party-like, way of covering up that area was just more me.

Photography by Peter Roessler

Photography by Peter Roessler

After sifting through countless art books in the basement of a library and exploring all kinds of artistic corners of the internet, I settled on a pair of permanent pasties, a cover up reminiscent of the fun pasties you’d find on women at music festivals. I brought images of psychedelic posters from the sixties — like a pink and orange poster created by artist Victor Moscoso — to my tattoo artist Esmé Hall at Sacred Vessel Tattoo in Vermont. The flower power prints he made remind me of an elevated form of being. I wanted something like that to be my new nipples.

Where my nipples once lived, she inked on tiny pink and orange hearts, surrounded by petals. They don’t cover up the full length of my scars but that is okay. Their cheery colors pop and distract my eyes from the old wounds. They immediately perked my wilted confidence back up and I felt like I could once again thrive and grow and show off my symbolic petals like the non-traditional flower that I am.

Later, I got a few more tiny tattoos with Tessa at Magic Cobra Tattoo Society in Brooklyn. I asked her to sprinkle some star constellations onto the scarred area: the Big Dipper on my left side and the Libra constellation on my right. They remind me of clear, cloudless nights. I also got a Simpsons reference inked on because it makes me laugh. If I have a tattoo dedicated to my mom, as I do on my right arm, then I should also get a tattoo to pay homage to the lighter side of my childhood, I figured. Now I have a “Die Bart, Die” tattoo, just like the one Sideshow Bob had on his chest in the cartoon series, only I got mine on my sideboob. I figured this would, like the permanent pasties, shift my struggles into something fun, morphing a sad situation into something comical but also meaningful.

I’m now more cartoon than woman and I’m trying to be okay with that. I’m still sad about losing my most feminine features, according to society, but I’m becoming more okay with it every day.

In addition to the tattoos, I underwent another body modification: lip injections. I solely did it to give myself a boost of confidence. The decision wasn’t rooted in any sort of insecurity. In fact, I’ve always loved my lips. They weren’t exceptionally voluptuous but they definitely were not thin. After a few pokes by the aesthetician, I looked in the mirror and my lips were, like magic, extra pouty and full. The enhancement made me feel the injection of confidence and control over my body I felt I lost to cancer.

It’s still awkward, and kind of nerve wracking, trying to figure out when to let people I’m dating know about my changed body. I mean, when is it appropriate to bring up that you are nipple-less? First date? First kiss? Over Tinder? It’s always weighing on me anytime I make plans for a date. Turns out, most guys I’ve been with didn’t really seem to mind the scars or the lack of real breasts. The confidence that the inked cover ups have given me definitely helped. One guy I was hooking up with even said it felt like he was having sex with the Princess from the Mario Brothers, thanks to my tats.

It’s still scary looking in the mirror sometimes, and I can’t stay I’m completely happy with what I see, but I can say for sure that having control over what that area looks like and getting to express myself artistically at the same time has been the best post-cancer gift to myself.