“Badass” probably isn’t the first phrase that comes to mind if you had to describe me.
If you guessed what I do for a living, you might venture librarian, English teacher, PTO mom, girl scout troop leader, maybe activity coordinator in an old folks home. It’s not on purpose; I just have that look.
But I’m here to tell you that I’m stained and tatted. A Bad Ass.
I know tattoos are popular, but thankfully, I just missed their rise to prominence and the pain, expense, and permanence of having ink injected under my flesh for the sake of aesthetics and philosophy. Most of the women I know who are only a few years younger than I am have at least one tattoo. A few of my older friends do, too, but those individuals are rare and usually have some extraordinary story to share about how their body art landed on them. Sometimes it takes a glass of chardonnay for those ladies to confess their saga.
For me, getting a tattoo is nothing I planned. And having seven seems like an impossibility.
But they are remarkable, and they are another in the chain of miracles that saved my life.
After my breast cancer diagnosis, I entered a world of medical innovation that I didn’t realize was out there. In fact, training myself to marvel at this wonderland of science and the amazing people who populate it is one of the coping mechanisms I adopted to get through my experience.
Traveling is one of my favorite pastimes, the more exotic, the better. I’ve held babies in dirt shacks in Central America, shopped for spices in the souks of Morocco, and slept on beaches in the south of France. Even when I could barely afford to feed myself, I’ve indulged in the lure of faraway places.
Realizing that cancer would put this passion on hold, I decided to look at the medical vortex as my new version of foreign travel. And there really are extraordinary similarities.
One of my first alien journeys into medical-land was a date with a bone scan machine, a peculiar and ingenious contraption, a temple of human imagination and creativity. Whoever invented it must have been an ace with an erector set as a kid and a star contestant on Jeopardy as an adult.
Another curious experience involved getting a stain injected under my skin. Way under.
My first ever tattoo used to be underneath my right arm. I got it because, by the time my breast cancer was discovered, it had spread to my lymph nodes and sternum.
As part of a clinical study at Stanford hospital, a smart, skilled technician injected the troublesome node area with ink instead of using a clip to mark a spot surgeons would need to find later. She explained that during treatment, cells inside my body might change. Chemo, for example, could shrink my cancerous cells, and that shifting could make it hard for surgeons to identify areas to remove.
To address this issue, technicians typically insert clips inside patients that act as guideposts and help with this process. The problem is that those clips can move, too.
A really smart person, probably a Bad Ass like me, realized that using ink to identify those spots would solve the problem. Hence my first tattoo, a tiny stain that was ultimately removed during surgery.
Later, I got seven more tattoos. Unlike my first one, these tats are on top of my skin, and if you look very closely, you can actually see them, although you might mistake them for a freckle.
The size of a pinhead, these tiny marks helped guide my radiation after surgery.
Radiation was odd, as close to foreign travel as possible without a passport. I remember lying on that amazing instrument in an elaborate room dedicated to its use, its long arms and surreal light beams lined up with my seven remaining tats. While the machine whirred its eerie sound, I visualized it zapping my cancer away. Daily radiation was my chance to indulge in myself, my meditations and ruminations. It was a strange mix of absolute privacy and a consummate invasion of privacy, a curious and foreign experience.
Dr. Barbara Fowble was my travel guru for this part of my journey; she’s an unbelievably modest genius who did everything in her considerable power to make my radiation successful.
If I look hard, I can still see my seven tattoos, and they remind me of my year in the vortex of cancer treatment. They remind me of all the smart, hard-working people who collectively saved my life, who gave my husband his wife back and kept a little girl from losing her mom.
They remind me to treasure that gift, to use it well.
And, of course, they are the physical manifestation of what I already knew.
That I’m a Bad Ass.
Really, we all are.
Originally Published on Breast Cancer News
Photo: Getty Images