by Katie Kausch
This year breast cancer will affect an estimated 230,000 American women, many of whom will turn to surgery to prevent or treat the disease.
Mastectomies often result in heavy scarring as well as the loss of the nipple, which doctors may attempt to recreate through tattoos. Unfortunately, with little tattoo training, doctors may be unable to capture the dimension needed to make the nipple look real (a skill it takes actual tattoo artists years to hone).
That's where P.ink comes in. P.ink (short for "Personal Ink") helps connect breast cancer survivors with experienced tattoo artists to create decorative mastectomy tattoos that cover up scarring.
"P.ink Day is about providing an amazing experience for breast cancer survivors, which culminates with a mastectomy tattoo to help them reclaim some of the personal property that breast cancer stole," founder Noel Franus said in a press release. "This is our grassroots approach to creatively addressing the difference between being cured and being healed."
One weekend in October, tattoo shops across the country host free, all-day sessions for survivors. What started as a one shop operation in Brooklyn has expanded to 13 locations across the country, with 48 survivor participants in 2015. MTV News attended this year's P.ink Day event on Saturday (Oct. 10) at Twelve 28 Tattoo in Queens, New York, where five survivors, accompanied by sisters, husbands, nephews and other supporters, were inked.
The shop was buzzing the whole time, both with excited chatter and tattoo needles.
After seven years of looking at her scars in the mirror, Tracy was ready for a change. Her design of flowers, infinity signs, water and a discrete pink ribbon covers her entire breast — and the scarring that was lowering her confidence.
"When I'm looking at myself in the mirror every morning I don’t have to see the ugly reminder of cancer, which is the scarring and the lack of nipples," Tracy said. "This tattoo will help me close this chapter, and I really feel that the artwork will remind me of closure, and of the future and surviving and thriving."
Deborah, a two-year survivor, was not always set on the idea of a mastectomy tattoo. "Initially, I had wanted to recreate my breasts," she said, "And then over the course of time, I realized that duplicating it wasn’t going to happen."
As with many survivors, the scarring was a painful reminder of Deborah's struggle. The tattoos offered a new perspective on her cancer journey. "I no longer have to look at a dark time in my life. I get to look at something pretty instead of the scars," she said.
Unlike the other women we spoke to, Barbara did not have a reconstruction prior to receiving her new tattoo. She was diagnosed in 2002, and had a double mastectomy in 2013.
"I have an illness called lupus, and I'm one some medication, so trying to go back and do the reconstruction, I kind of had to think about the kidney transplant, so I opted not to," Barbara said. "The tattoo was my best option."
Barbara choose a design of "something blooming" to help recover her old self. "I kind of chose this design to bring me back the life that I lost, to give me back the personality that I kind of missed," she said.
Leslie, a two-time survivor, chose an abstract interpretation of her favorite flower, the poppy, to cover-up her scars on both her abdomen and breasts. "It's been over a year, and I don't look at myself in the mirror," she said, adding that the tattoo "will boost up [her] confidence."
"I don't have to look at this scar anymore. [The confidence is] from looking at a beautiful tattoo instead of a scar going from hip to hip." Her tattoo will require a follow-up session to finish, although most recipients finish in one session.
She also had encouraging words for women going through treatment currently: "Pain is temporary, so if you have scars, eventually they'll heal, and you can always cover them up with a tattoo later on."
Diane, who was part of the first group of P.ink tattoo recipients in 2013, now volunteers with the event. She had a specific, yet abstract, idea of what she wanted her tattoo to be. "During my surgeries, as part of my treatment, I was having lots of dreams at night about doves ... and the only thing that I ever associated with that image was my grandmother, so these images were very comforting during a stressful time," she said. Her artist "was able to come up with a really cool, kind of geometric interpretation of a dove's wing."
Diane could not be happier with the result. "Prior to getting the tattoo, I would look at myself in the mirror and just kind of try and avoid this general area. I didn't really like looking at my scar," she said. "I was very lucky, I had a very good reconstruction, but I no longer loved what I saw in the mirror. After getting my tattoo, I'm so much more comfortable with what I see in the mirror."
Joy Rumore, owner of Twelve 28 Tattoo and three-time participant in P.ink Day, loved the positivity associated with these types of tattoos. "I think it really helps the women to move on a reclaim their bodies," she said. "The tattooing helps women because it helps them put something positive in such a negative experience they'd had fighting cancer."
She tattooed Tracy this year, and spoke highly of the reactions from the recipients. "When they see it finished the first time I think it often a mixture of relief that it's over and just closure," she said. "Its just that closure, they need to move on and not worry about it anymore."