Breast Cancer Tattoos: What You Need To Know Before Getting Inked

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Breast cancer treatment, no matter the type or the prognosis, can feel like a blur. From diagnosis to the last day of chemo, it can be impossible to think of anything but fighting cancer.

But after treatment is over, it’s time to think about something new: healing.

For some women, getting a tattoo has been an essential part of their healing journey. Tattoos can be a way to redefine themselves. A tattoo is a permanent reminder of who you are and where you’ve been—they’re powerful symbols. And each one is as unique as the person it adorns.

It’s easy to be inspired by the stories of other women who’ve gotten beautiful post-mastectomy tattoos. But the decision to permanently ink yourself requires some careful consideration. What do you want from a tattoo? Are there risks? How do you find the right artist? Here are some things to mull over:

Why do you want a tattoo?

What are your goals and hopes for your tattoo? Once you really know what is driving your decision, you’ll be better able to make the many other decisions involved in getting inked. Do you want to remember something? Inspire yourself? Are you wanting your tattoo to cover a scar? Write down what you want your tattoo to mean, and let that purpose statement guide you through the entire process.

The most important thing is to give yourself time to think about what you want and why you want it. Don’t allow yourself to be pressured into anything before you’re ready. Your tattoo will be with you for a long time, and it has to be something that will stay meaningful to you as the years go by. A tattoo should never feel rushed.

Are you concerned about side effects?

The tattoo process is relatively safe, but it can cause pain depending on where you get your tattoo. If you get reconstructed tissue tattooed, you may get away with very little pain, but ensure you are fully healed before beginning the tattoo process. Because there is a risk of infection after getting a tattoo, you should not consider one while undergoing radiation or chemotherapy.

Metallic tattoo inks may cause problems with future MRIs. Talk to your tattoo artist about this and consider getting a tattoo that does not require metallic inks.

What kind of tattoo do you want?

If you know the purpose of your tattoo and perhaps have a rough design (the tattoo artist can help with the final design), it’s time to think about what style of tattoo you want.

When it comes to post-breast cancer tattoos, there are three main types:

Lingerie or Bra Tattoo

These pretty, feminine tattoos mimic an intricate bra and cover both breasts. From a distance it would probably look like you’re wearing a pretty swimsuit top. See one of our favorite lingerie tattoos here.

Single breast tat

If you are interested in something smaller, or are looking up to cover a scar from a lumpectomy or bilateral mastectomy, a smaller, more understated tattoo may be right. Some tattoos gently cup the breast or run under it. Certain designs, like flowers or birds, can nicely complement the shape of a breast. Check out the tattoos that Kim and Christine got to help get their confidence back.

Flat Chest Tattoo

Let’s not forget all the ladies that said ta-ta to their breasts for good! A woman who chooses not to go for reconstruction after a double or bilateral mastectomy has a good flat surface for creating an amazing chest-plate tattoo. Your chest is an excellent canvas for big, bold art, so get creative! Check out this Wonder Woman tattoo for inspiration!

Not-on-the-breast Tattoos

Let’s not be exclusive here—your breasts aren’t the only place you can get a tattoo! And there are tons of awesome women and men who’ve gotten tattoos to support or remember loved ones that have gone through breast cancer. Those tattoos may feature a pink ribbon, a name, a date, or something that signifies the special relationship. Need some inspiration? These user-submitted tattoos are amazing!

Photo: AdobeStock/Drobot Dean

Photo: AdobeStock/Drobot Dean

Deciding on an artist

Once you have an good idea of the type of tattoo you want, it’s time to find an artist who can make your inky dreams come true! If your tattoo will cover your scars, it’s a good idea to look into an artist that has experience working with scar tissue. The organization P.ink specializes in connecting women with mastectomy scars with tattoo artists. You may want to check out their website anyway to see some amazing examples of post-cancer body art.

But you can also go to a traditional tattoo shop. Here are some things to look for:

  • An artist whose style you like. There are artists with different specialities and art styles, so be sure to look at lots of examples and check out multiple artists to find the perfect fit!
  • An artist who will talk to you. Again, this tattoo will be permanent! Find an artist who is willing to talk to you about your design, make sure you’re happy with their interpretation, and take the time to understand your motivation.
  • Licensing—all artists in the shop should be licensed. Licensing requirements vary by area, so you may want to check with your state or county to see what licenses are required and then make sure the shop you choose has the correct licenses.
  • Good sanitation practices. Make sure the artists in the shop wear gloves and open fresh needles and tubes for each tattoo session. If an artist has reusable equipment, make sure that they use an autoclave machine to sterilize instruments. The better sanitation practices a shop has, the less chance of infection!

Follow-Up Care

Once you’ve taken the plunge and you’re emblazoned with a beautiful (but still tender) work of art, make sure to follow post-tattoo care procedures to the letter. Don’t throw away money by paying for a tattoo and then not taking care of it! Your tattoo artist will provide you with instructions, but here are the general guidelines:

  • Keep the tattooed area clean, but be gentle. Use gentle soap and avoid direct contact with water while in the shower.
  • Pat the area dry instead of rubbing.
  • Keep skin moisturized using mild moisturizer.
  • Keep your masterpiece out of the sun for a couple of weeks.
  • No swimming.
  • Wear clothing that won’t stick to the tattoo.
  • Don’t scratch or pick at your tattoo.
  • Contact your tattoo artist if you notice anything out of the ordinary.

Once your tattoo is completely healed, it will of course be very low-maintenance—it will just need some admiration now and then!

Tattoos can be a beautiful expression of your personal story, and we love how so many women have used them to take back their identity and further the healing process. To be clear, scars don’t need to be covered up, and women don’t need to be decorated. But when a woman chooses a tattoo, it can be a lasting testament to her decision to be in charge of her own destiny and remember her accomplishments.

Here's how “sound wave” tattoos are helping loved ones connect: Click “Next” below!

Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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