While a breast cancer diagnosis—or the treatment that follows—might make a person feel weak, breast cancer tattoos can be a celebration of strength and perseverance. And while you can’t control the scars that come with breast cancer treatment, it might be comforting to take back some control over your changing body with a breast cancer tattoo. The women we spoke with said their breast cancer tattoos served as daily reminders of how far they’ve come—and they’ve sparked awareness-building conversations. Some put a tattoo inspired by their breast cancer on their breast (or over a mastectomy scar) while others picked a more visible spot. Scroll down to see their breast cancer tattoos, and read the powerful stories behind them.*
“I’ve been living with metastatic breast cancer for three and a half years. In that time I’ve gotten five tattoos. Most are over divots or scarring from surgeries. Each one redeems or explains a part of my story. First I got a frayed ribbon that looks like the METUP logo over the divot in my left breast. It’s all black, so it’s stark and stands out against my skin. It gave me the courage to keep going.” —Abigail Johnston
“I also have a dragon that curves around my right hip, down to my knee, where I had rods surgically inserted into my femur to support my bones, where the cancer had spread; this hides the scars. To me, dragons symbolize spring, generosity, independence, free-mindedness, and creativity. I’m also right-handed, so having the dragon on my dominant side is also significant.” —A.J.
“Butterflies represent transformation, bursting forth from the darkness and isolation of the chrysalis, which is not unlike what has happened to me as a result of my MBC diagnosis. This tattoo represents how I’ve burst out of my shell. I have my kiddos’ names in the wings, because they give me wings, and my husband’s name in the body of the butterfly, since he is my rock, centering and grounding me. Wearing art on my body allows me to redefine the scars and effects of MBC treatment.” —A.J.
“My tattoos are part of who I am as a woman, kind of like my scars have become. As an artist and as a woman living with metastatic breast cancer, I have a story to tell, and I just happen to wear my story on my skin. I’ve spent my 21-year career in the field of tattooing, so not every tattoo has an intention behind it. They do, however, all speak to me. They serve as reminders of where I was at any given moment, physically or mentally, over the last 20 years, as well as how far I’ve come in life. Some of my favorites are my children’s names, my grandparents’ portraits, and the Hindu god Ganesha—the remover of obstacles—on my throat, which I got just after my terminal breast cancer diagnosis. —Beth Fairchild
(Editor’s note: Read more of Beth’s story—and see more of her tattoos—here.)
“I was introduced to a group called Live a Great Story after my breast cancer diagnosis, and its message really resonated with me as I slowly worked toward acceptance: No matter what life throws at you, you can and should live a great story. It isn’t over! One of my dreams was to take my family on a beautiful vacation. Last February, just before COVID, my husband and I took our three adult children and our husbands or significant others and grandkids on a dream trip to Hawaii. The palm tree and water represent that trip and the words speak for themselves: Whatever your story, make it a great one!” —Lynn Calhoun
“I’m living with metastatic breast cancer after being diagnosed at age 39. I had no family history and no previous cancer diagnosis. My cancer had already spread from my breast to my lymph nodes and into my spine and sternum. I got this tattoo because I finished 12 rounds of chemotherapy and I wanted to celebrate! My sisters also have versions of the same tattoo, which my 18-year-old daughter designed. They’re different, but the same. Mine has a triangle for each of us, and the METAvivor ribbon colors.” —Michelle Schwerdtfeger
“My sister Krista was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer exactly three months to the day after my diagnosis.” —M.S.
“Our sister Jean, who’s happily married to a wonderful wife, has rainbow colors in her tattoo to show support for the LGBT community.” —M.S.
“More than eight years ago, I was about to face a double mastectomy and possible radiation when my friend sent me the song ‘The Sun Will Rise’ by Kelly Clarkson. I knew I needed to keep believing that everything would be okay. It just had to be. And so the week before my mastectomy, I had the title tattooed on my forearm, where I could see it every day to remind myself to keep going. And while I recovered in the hospital, it became a conversation piece among the nurses. It still sparks a conversation every time another doctor, nurse, or technician sees it.” —Delilah Talbot
“After two years of surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and physical therapy, my body was finally ready to get back to ‘real’ life—so I decided I needed to complete a Spartan Race. ‘Refuse to Sink’ became my mantra, and I knew I needed to have it inked onto my very tattered body. Getting the tattoo to mark the occasion was so therapeutic that my brain just completely relaxed and I fell asleep. I took that as a reminder to remain cool while in the thick of it on the race, and it worked. I crossed that finish line with more pride than I had ever had—and I wanted more. Every race I’ve done since then proves to myself that I’m always capable of more than I was the day before. I’ve found others with similar tattoos over the years, and we each have our own story of strength and perseverance.” —D.T.
“I’ve been living with metastatic breast cancer for four years. I was first diagnosed with earlier stage breast cancer in 1997 and spent the next 19 years thinking I was a survivor. When I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2016, it really threw me for a loop and I needed something positive to see on a daily basis. My brother-in-law is a tattoo artist and he did this tattoo for me. It serves as a reminder to live every day to the fullest even though I have this terminal disease. Every day I persist.” —Corky Corley
*Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
Originally Appeared on Glamour