October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time of year when we’re served near-daily reminders of the disease, as everything from yogurt tops to Brillo pads are washed in pink. But for the people directly impacted by breast cancer, the color pink is not a salve to the pain and fear that come alongside a cancer diagnosis. Because when breast cancer leads to a mastectomy, patients are left with a permanent reminder across their chest of what the disease took from them.
Whether they get them to heal, mask their pain, or start fresh, mastectomy tattoos are an increasingly popular choice in lieu of nipple tattooing or breast reconstruction entirely. The art in these tattoos speaks for itself, and is only made more powerful by the people wearing it. Ahead, we’re sharing 11 designs that show the beauty of mastectomy tattoos and the beauty of the survivors who’ve chosen to share their scars.
1. Getting your sexy back
One of the most difficult challenges following a mastectomy is learning to love your new body—and coping with the fear that someone else won’t. Dana Donofree, the woman pictured above, created a line of post-mastectomy lingerie for other people affected by breast cancer, but this cherry blossom tattoo by artist Delshay Haaheo was created just for her, and getting it allowed her to feel confident for the first time after her surgery.
2. From battle to beauty
Some breast cancer survivors get tattoos soon after their mastectomies, but for the person in this photo it took years of hiding scars under bras and clothing to realize hiding wasn’t the only option. The cheerful color of this bright, illustrative floral piece is a welcome change from angry, red scars.
3. It’s a celebration
A mastectomy tattoo should breathe life into you every time you glance at it, not bring you down. And what says “I’m alive!” more than flowers and wildlife? This survivor added stunning bouquets done in the American Traditional style to her mastectomy scars to mark 15 years of survival—a milestone that unfortunately isn’t met by everyone diagnosed with cancer.
4. Love your skin, scars and all
The caption on this photo serves as a reminder that even though guidelines permit them, pictures of mastectomies and mastectomy tattoos are routinely removed from Instagram. Not only does this prevent other women from finding the inspiration they need during a difficult time, it also makes them feel like their scars are something they need to hide. This discreet dotwork tattoo by Em Rocha—an artist who also does permanent makeup—can be easily hidden, but why should it be?
5. Confidence heals
Cancer can rob you of your breasts and nipples…and your confidence. So it makes sense that for a while, this survivor thought her confidence might permanently be stifled. It can take a long time to recover from the emotional damage cancer inflicts, and mastectomy tattoos—like these matching pieces placed where the nipples would otherwise be—can play an important part in that healing process.
6. Breasts don’t equal beautiful
It wasn’t until recently that mastectomy patients were offered breast reconstruction paid for by private insurance. But many survivors still opt not to reconstruct their chest to mimic a post-cancer body. Breasts aren’t a prerequisite to beauty and tattoos like this serene river scene help patients “reclaim their body” regardless of whether or not they pursue reconstruction.
7. It’s a sign of the sisterhood
Scars are often considered a badge of honor, and a mastectomy scar is no different. It’s not always easy to show off these scars off, though, and having the option to disguise them with temporary tattoos, like this patient did, is ideal for some survivors (plus it allows you to change your designs to suit your moods).
8. A New Chapter
For people with breast cancer, a mastectomy is often the first surgery in a series of many, as was the case for this patient who needed multiple operations to remove dead tissue. Each additional cut left new scars that changed the shape of her chest, but this realistic black-and-grey floral tattoo made beautiful use of that changed shape as a canvas for a piece of art she can treasure forever.
9. Outside the lines
Unlike surgeons who need to be precise in their cuts, especially when removing cancerous tissue, tattoo artists have the ability to exercise creative freedom. Many tattooers draw freehand designs to mimic natural shapes and movement, like this neotraditional style feather design.
10. You always remember your first
Looking down at your chest after a mastectomy is terrifying. Two breasts that had been with you since birth are suddenly replaced by nothing but a flattened scar. But the look on this woman’s face as she sees her stunning tribal style mastectomy tattoo for the first time shows that for many people, tattoos really can be therapeutic.
11. Negative space, not negative experiences
Every other mastectomy tattoo we found layers a beautiful design on top of the scarred area. But this person chose to celebrate her survival status by leaving her chest as one of the only blank spaces on her body. The choice may even be symbolic—changing every other part of her body to match the change on her chest.
If you liked our story 11 Mastectomy Tattoos That Transform Pain Into Healing, make sure to check out our post Therapeutic Tattoos: Can Art Be Cathartic?