See How These Breast Cancer Survivors Turned Their Mastectomy Scars Into Art with Stunning Tattoos (Exclusive)

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

Published Time: 12.05.2024 - 18:31:09 Modified Time: 12.05.2024 - 18:31:09

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

For a breast cancer survivor, tattooing over those surgery scars “can have a huge psychological benefit,” says Dr. Megan Vucovich, assistant professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who specializes in breast cancer reconstructions. “They didn’t get to have a say in the mastectomy, but they can take control and mold their scars into something meaningful.”

While tattooing should only be done 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 scar to mature and flatten,” Vucovich says — breast cancer survivors actually have one advantage: “There’s usually numbness after a mastectomy, so most people tolerate mastectomy tattoos pain-wise better than a traditional tattoo," she says.

A non-profit called Personal Ink, known as, has been helping to connect breast cancer survivors who want to turn their scars into art with volunteer tattoo artists for more than 10 years. Each October, the group recruits tattoo artists willing to donate their time and organizes Day events at cities around the country. Since it began, has helped arrange free mastectomy tattoos for 527 cancer survivors at 140 Days. The group will begin accepting applications for its October events in July.

Three breast cancer survivors who, with the help of, had their mastectomy scars covered with tattoos at Day events last year, shared their stories with PEOPLE in this week's issue.

Kerry Wright never used to be a “tattoo person.” But that was before seven surgeries for breast cancer changed her body—and her mind. “I’m covered in scars,” says Wright, 54. “And I didn’t realize how much I avoided looking at them.” Until, that is, she got her tattoo. Now “I’m not uncomfortable in my own skin anymore.”

Diagnosed in January 2020, Wright was initially told she needed a lumpectomy and that she’d likely be able to return to her job as a medical assistant and office coordinator after four weeks of radiation. But the cancer had spread, and 17 months of grueling treatment and surgeries followed. She passed out from her first chemo session: “I just couldn’t tolerate it.” Radiation left her with burn wounds that needed around-the-clock care for six weeks. “I reacted to everything,” says Wright, who still has to take 42 pills daily. “I had every side effect possible.”

Her daughter Moira, 30, quit her job and moved into Wright’s Westmont, Ill., home to help. “I couldn’t reach into a cupboard and get my own cup or plate for a year and a half,” Wright says. “She got me through. I would not have survived without her.” Early on, Moira began showing her mom the work of artists who specialized in tattooing over mastectomy scars. “I was like, ‘I’m 50. I’ve never had a tattoo. That’s not me. I’m not doing that.’ ”

After her final reconstruction surgery in November 2021, when she decided against nipple reconstruction (“Healing in two places when I had nothing but trouble healing? I wasn’t going to do that”), Wright began to reconsider. But she quickly realized that a tattoo covering such a large space would be more than she could easily afford— upwards of $1,500 to $1,800. “Cancer is expensive. Post-cancer is expensive because of all the medications,” Wright says. “I couldn’t justify taking that out of the household budget for myself.”

Then she came across a social media post from, and she applied for one of the group's Days. “They get so many applications, and it was my first year applying, so I thought, ‘It’s not going to happen,’” she says. But she received a call in August saying she was accepted.

She flew to Denver, where artist Christopher Yaws spent eight hours tattooing her design, an intricate string of dogwood tree flowers (which have a special meaning for Wright and her daughter) and hydrangeas (in honor of Wright’s friend who died in 2018). "Kerry has gone through so much," says Yaws, who had volunteered for Days twice before as well. "It blows me away how tough these women are."

The uppermost flower, on the right side of her chest, sits where her chemo line had been. “He co -

vered my port scar, which was such a thoughtful thing to do,” Wright says.

Seeing the result for the first time, “I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t see my scars anymore,” she says. “It was beautiful. It was so much more than I imagined it could be.” When she arrived back home, “my partner, who is also not a tattoo person, stared at it, and he said, ‘Oh my God, it’s art.’ And it is art.”

But more than that, “it meant confidence,” she says. “With cancer, everybody tells you, ‘We’re doing this, you have to do that.’ This tattoo is the first choice I got to make. You’re taking back some of your power and saying, ‘This is for me.’ And that’s huge when you’ve been through trauma. This was truly the start of healing for me.”

It was a surprisingly easy decision for Janet Wiseman to skip reconstructive surgery after undergoing her double mastectomy in 2015. “I’m very athletic, and my pair always got in the way when I was working under the car or when I’m jogging,” says Wiseman, 56, a former Annapolis, Md., firefighter captain. “They were for appearance only. They weren’t something I was attached to!”

But whenever Wiseman would look in the mirror after surgery, “all I’d see is a scar. I’m the Scarecrow across the middle,” she says. “I kept telling myself, ‘Those are battle scars. It’s not who you are.’ But I didn’t realize the impact that scar had on my emotions.” And even though she and her husband grew comfortable enough for her to enjoy the freedom of swimming topless, people often assumed she was transgender. The solution, she decided, was a tattoo.

Wiseman was chosen for one of’s New York City events last October held at Hustle Butter Tattoo Gasllery, and she and her tattoo artist Akos Strenner created a design depicting the hand of God touching the spot where her cancer was discovered.

Her first look at the results of Strenner's work “was overwhelming,” Wiseman says. Overcome with emotion, she wept and hugged Strenner: “It felt like I wasn’t damaged anymore.”

For Strenner, who was a first-time day volunteer, "it was a beautiful experience," he says. "It changed me. For me to be able to do that for her, it meant so much. I'm doing tattoos every day in the last 25 years, but I never experienced anything like that before."

For Wiseman, the experience was profoundly meaningful: “After a battle with cancer, you’re left with pieces. This makes me feel like I’m not sewn together in a bad way. God’s brought this to completion. I don’t see a scar anymore. I see courage. I see power. I won.”

Since she was diagnosed with four different kinds of breast cancer in 2014, Dawn Pugh has had to face losing her breasts twice. First, when she had her mastectomy, and then in 2019 when she had her implants removed because of health side effects, including inflammation and high blood pressure, that were so severe she went on disability from her job 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,” says Pugh, 49.

Last October, after connected her with volunteer tattoo artist Eddie Torres, Pugh traveled from her Portland, Mich., home to a event in Miami. “The experience was life-changing,” Pugh says. “ made it so special—they gave us goodies and blankets, and Eddie put so much love into it.”

Getting the tattoo done "was a joy," she says. "He put his heart into it and it shows."

Says Torres, a Day first-timer, "it was emotional. I told Dawn it was equally life-changing for me."

The result—a pair of mandalas that incorporate numerology into the design—took about eight hours to complete and covered the reconstructed nipples and areola tattoos that were left out of alignment after Pugh’s implants were removed.

When she saw her new art, “I was like, ‘I’m never going to put on a shirt again!’ There’s unexpected self-confidence,” says Pugh. “I feel like a badass again. Now when I look at my chest, I don’t think, ‘Oh, flat.’ I think, ‘Fire, man!’”

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