Breast cancer survivor turns scars into art (Exclusive)

  • More than 140,000 women undergo mastectomies every year
  • Nonprofit organization Personal Ink ( helps breast cancer survivors turn their scars into art by connecting them with volunteer tattoo artists
  • arranges free mastectomy tattoos for more than 500 cancer survivors

More than 140,000 breast cancer patients undergo mastectomies each year, and each patient is left with scars that can be painful reminders of their medical trauma.

Dr. Megan Vukovich, assistant professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who specializes in breast cancer reconstruction, said that for breast cancer survivors, getting a tattoo over their surgical scar “can have huge psychological benefits.” . “They don’t have a say in the mastectomy, but they can control and shape the scar into something meaningful.”

While tattooing can only be performed after all surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments are complete – “We recommend waiting six months to a year after surgery, depending on the healing process, to allow the scars to mature and flatten,” says Vucovich – Breast Cancer survivors actually have an advantage: “There is usually numbness after a mastectomy, so most people can tolerate the pain of a mastectomy tattoo better than a traditional tattoo,” she says.

A nonprofit called Personal Ink (aka has been helping connect breast cancer survivors who want to turn their scars into art with volunteer tattoo artists for more than a decade. Every October, the organization recruits tattoo artists willing to donate their time and organizes Day events in cities across the country. Since its inception, has helped 527 cancer survivors arrange free mastectomy tattoos over 140 Days. The group will begin accepting applications for the October event in July.

Last year, three breast cancer survivors used’s help to cover their mastectomy scars with tattoos as part of Day and share their stories in this week’s issue of People magazine.

Kerry Wright: ‘It’s so empowering’

Kerry Wright has never been a “tattooer” before. But that was before seven breast cancer surgeries transformed her body and mind. “I was covered in scars,” said Wright, 54, “and I didn’t realize how much I avoided looking at them.” Until she got the tattoo. Now “I no longer feel uncomfortable in my own skin.”

Wright was diagnosed in January 2020 and was initially told she would need a tumor removal and that after four weeks of radiation therapy, she would likely be able to return to work as a medical assistant and office coordinator. But the cancer had spread, and what followed was 17 months of grueling treatment and surgery. She collapsed during her first chemotherapy treatment: “I just couldn’t take it.” The radiation left her with burn wounds that required around-the-clock care for six weeks. “I react to everything,” said Wright, who still takes 42 pills a day. “I experienced every possible side effect.”

Moira Wright and her mom Kelly Wright.

Brindi Schulte

Her daughter Moira, 30, quit her job and moved into Wright’s home in Westmont, Illinois, to help. “For a year and a half I couldn’t reach into a cupboard and get my own cup or plate,” Wright said. “She got me through it. I couldn’t live without her. Early on, Moira started showing her mom the work of artists who specialize in tattooing mastectomy scars. “I was like, ‘I’m 50 Years old. I’ve never done that.”

After her last reconstructive surgery in November 2021, when she decided against nipple reconstruction (“Healing in two places when I have nothing but trouble healing? I’m not going to do that”), Wright began to consider. But she soon realized that a tattoo covering such a large space was more than she could afford—more than $1,500 to $1,800. “Cancer is expensive. Post-cancer treatment is very expensive because of the various medications required,” Wright said. “There’s no reason for me to take it out of my family budget.”

Tattoo artist Chris Yaws working on Kerry Wright.

Brindi Schulte

Then she saw’s social media posts and applied to attend one of the group’s Days. “They got a lot of applications, and this was my first year applying, so I thought, ‘This isn’t going to happen,'” she said. But she got a call in August saying she had been accepted.

She flew to Denver, where artist Christopher Yaws spent eight hours tattooing her design, an intricate string of dogwood tree flowers (which had special meaning to Wright and her daughter) and hydrangeas (in honor of Wright’s friend who passed away in 2018). “Kerry has been through a lot,” said Masashi, who has volunteered for Days twice before. “I was blown away by the strength of these women.”

The top flower is on the right side of her chest, where her chemotherapy lines are. “He covered my port scar, which was a very thoughtful thing to do,” Wright said.

Kerry Wright.

Brindi Schulte

When she first saw the results, “I was speechless. I could no longer see my scars,” she said. “It used to be quite beautiful. It was a lot more than I thought it would be. When she got home, ‘My partner, who’s not a tattoo guy either, was staring at it and he said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is art.’ ‘” and it yes Art.

But more importantly, “it means confidence,” she said. “With cancer, everyone tells you, ‘We’re doing this and you have to do that.’ This tattoo was the first choice I made. You take back some power and say, ‘This is for me.’ “When you’ve been through trauma, it’s huge. It was really the beginning of healing for me.

Janet Wiseman: ‘I have final say on cancer’

After Janet Wiseman underwent a double mastectomy in 2015, she made the surprisingly easy decision to skip reconstructive surgery. Fire Chief in Annapolis, Maryland. “They’re just for looks. They’re not something I’m obsessed with!

But whenever Wiseman looked in the mirror after surgery, “all I saw was a scar. I was the scarecrow in the middle,” she said. “I kept telling myself, ‘Those are battle scars. This is not you.’ But I didn’t realize the impact the scars had on my mood. Even though she and her husband were comfortable enough to enjoy the freedom of topless swimming, people often Thinking she was transgender, she decided the solution was to get a tattoo.

Last October, Wiseman was selected to attend one of’s New York City events at Hustle Butter Tattoo Gasllery, where she and her tattoo artist, Akos Strenner, created a design depicting the hand of God touching the site where she discovered cancer .

Tattoo artist Akos Strenner creates the tattoo for Janet Wiseman.

Lydia DeJesus

Wiseman said she was “shocked” when she first saw the results of Strenna’s work. She was overcome with emotion, crying and hugging Strenner: “It feels like I’m not hurt anymore.”

For Strenner, a first-time logger, “it’s been a great experience,” he said. “It changed me. It meant a lot to me to be able to do this for her. I’ve been getting tattoos every day for the past 25 years, but I’d never experienced anything like this before.”

For Wiseman, the experience was profound: “After a battle with cancer, you’re left in pieces. It made me feel like I wasn’t stitched together in a bad way. God had done it all. I no longer see scars. I see strength.

Dawn Pugh: ‘I got my courage back’

Since being diagnosed with four different types of breast cancer in 2014, Dawn Pugh has had to face the loss of her breasts twice. First, when she had a mastectomy, and then in 2019, she had her implants removed due to health side effects like inflammation and high blood pressure that were so severe that she was unable to work as a dental assistant.

“People don’t think of breast cancer as an amputation because it’s not a leg or an arm, but that’s what you’re doing,” said Pugh, 49.

Last October, Pugh traveled from her home in Portland, Michigan, to attend a event in Miami after connected her with volunteer tattoo artist Eddie Torres. “This experience changed my life,” Pugh said. “ made it so special – they gave us gifts and blankets and Eddie put a lot of love into it.”

Dawn Pugh.

Jason Moffat

She said getting the tattoo done “was a joy.” “He puts his heart and soul into it and it shows.”

Torres, who participated in Day for the first time, said, “It’s exciting. I told Dawn that it also changed my life.”

The result was a pair of mandalas that incorporated numerology into the design, took about eight hours to complete, and covered nipple and areola tattoos that were reconstructed after Pugh’s implants were removed, which were misaligned.

When she saw her new art, “I was like, ‘I’m never going to put a shirt on again!’ It was surprisingly confident,” Pugh said. “I feel like a badass again. Now, when I look at my breasts, I don’t think, ‘Oh, flat.’ ” I’m like, ‘Shoot it up, man!

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