A Study in Pain and Ink

The tattoos of cancer survivors

Maya stands half-naked in front of the mirror. She looks up and beams.

It’s the first time in four or five years that she can look at herself and not feel like she’s being punched in the face.

There is a tattoo on Maya’s chest.

Some call it a cover-up tattoo, but Maya’s tattoo artist calls it “redirection.” It’s supposed to shift the onlooker’s gaze from mastectomy scars to body art.

It’s supposed to make Maya feel beautiful and strong again.


Psychologists consider cancer a type of trauma.

Traumatic experiences leave you confused and hurting. They distort your sense of self. They make you feel like the world is ending.

But then the world goes on, and sometimes you go on, too, and good things happen.

You find ways to cope. You re-define yourself and your relationships with others. Sometimes your entire way of life. You move on.

What role does a tattoo play in that journey?


Jordan Eschler, Arpita Bhattacharya, and Wanda Pratt interviewed 19 people with cancer survivor tattoos.

The cancers included blood cancers (like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma), breast cancer, testicular cancer, colon cancer, and pancreatic cancer.

The people were mostly in remission – their bodies no longer showed evidence of cancer. Two were waiting to be medically cleared to get a tattoo. Two never had cancer themselves, but the disease took their loved one.

The tattoos remain a mystery. Privacy matters to the survivors, and to the researchers. Inks are unique. Once described or photographed, they can be used to identify their owners. The researchers didn’t describe the tattoos to ensure interviewees’ anonymity. Everybody, including Maya, picked their own nicknames.

Behind every tattoo there’s a story. If your tattoo shows, people might ask questions. Sometimes it’s a nice conversation, but sometimes it’s an invasion of privacy.

That is why tattooed cancer survivors get to decide what to disclose, to whom, when, and where. They choose the design, size, and placement of the tattoo.

Here’s what the survivors chose.


At the time when Maya got her tattoo, she and her sister lived at the beach.

“It was a world of difference when it came to make it in a bathing suit and just again it was just really empowering, the chest piece that I ended up doing,” she said.

Like many other mastectomy patients who had their breasts removed, Maya had to accept her new body image. The tattoo somehow made acceptance easier.

But even if the tattoo is not there to cover up a scar, it has a purpose. Browsing the internet for ideas and designing tattoos can help you claim the identity of a cancer survivor – and own it. Once you own it, you can decide what to do with it.

“If I don’t tell you it’s there, you’re probably not gonna know it’s there, and that’s exactly what I wanted, because it’s my tattoo and has meaning for me,” said Robin. “I just didn’t feel the need for it to be, you know, extremely large on my body.”

To keep their privacy, some survivors opted for designs that were less conspicuous than cancer-awareness ribbons.

“It’s a little bit more metaphorical [and people] don’t necessarily say, ‘Oh, that’s a tattoo you got because you got cancer,’ it’s like, ‘Oh, cool Star Wars tattoo’,” explained Luke.

“So yeah, people definitely ask me about it, and for people that are close to me I tell them a little bit more why I got it, but you know if they don’t really know you it’s like, ‘Yeah dude, Star Wars is rad.’ That’s pretty much the end of it.”

Personalized tattoos create a protective layer of meaning that gives people an opportunity to choose when – and whether – to spread cancer awareness. Tattoos give the survivors a sense of personal control that illness had taken away from them.


Some survivors readily embrace the role of an advocate – especially if there’s an additional cause that motivates them or a loving person that cheers them on.

Adrian decided to let everyone know about her tattoo once she realized there’s not enough breast cancer stories told by and about women of color.

“When I get the tattoo, I will shout it to the rooftops. So I have a blog. I’m African American, and when I was looking for information about African Americans with breast cancer, I couldn’t find any pictures,” Adrian said.

“I couldn’t find any visuals, and I felt like I needed that information, so as somebody who’s a born extrovert—my sister’s a total introvert, but she set [the blog] up still. She put together, part of the system that she put together has a blogging feature, so I blogged everything from my naked upper all the way, you know, my before pictures all the way out, so I will probably document the whole thing and then stop the blog.”

Intertwined with her identity as a survivor is her identity as a Black woman. In an avalanche of resources created by white people for white people, Adrian used her experience to inspire other African American cancer patients. Through empowering others, she empowered herself.


After being poked and probed by doctors, cancer survivors turn to a different kind of pain – but this time on their own terms. Through tattoos, they reclaim control over their bodies.

As Veronica, a pediatric cancer survivor, recalled:

“And maybe [when I got the tattoo] I didn’t see it that way or I wasn’t pausing to think, ‘Okay, this is part of me taking control, you know…[but] I would definitely agree with that in the sense that when you choose to put something on your body, it’s like your choice, your control . . .”

Just like their personalities, experiences, and tattoos, people’s attitudes to control also vary. For 55-year-old Bruce, getting a tattoo actually meant letting it go. For a middle-aged guy with no previous inks, it must have felt like doing something exciting and out of character.

“If anything, getting tattoos was giving up control. It was doing something I wouldn’t do. It was doing something I can’t change, so to me it was, ‘Look at me not being so controlled,’” he said.

Thinking of his new hobby, Bruce spoke not of control, but of balance.

“I started taking tightrope walking lessons… one of the things when you’re on a tightrope is you’re always falling, and there’s nothing you can do about that except constantly adjust, and it can look beautiful, smooth, and effortless, but it’s always adjusting.”

Like tightrope walking, existence is an arduous ballet of constant adjustments to the changes around and inside, ones that we can control and ones that we can’t.

Sometimes pain chooses us and our bodies change in ways that leave us powerless and small. Sometimes we choose pain and modify our bodies with needles and inks to please and reassure ourselves.


Life is a tensioned rope over an unknown terrain. Every time we slip, there comes a fall. It might end with death and one day will. But most of the time it means we have to get up and do everything we can to stay on the rope for a while longer.

A life in remission is like getting back on the tightrope after a very painful fall. Tattoos are the reminder of the fall, and the life after the fall. Tattoos help cancer survivors transform unspeakable horrors into manageable experiences that can be rendered into pictures and words – an intimate study in pain and ink.


Adrianna Zabrzewska wrote this based on: Jordan Eschler, Arpita Bhattacharya, and Wanda Pratt. “Designing a Reclamation of Body and Health: Cancer Survivor Tattoos as Coping Ritual.Proceedings of the 2018 Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference. April 21–26, 2018, Montréal, QC, Canada. Paper no. 510, pp. 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1145/3173574.3174084

The stories and quotes from Maya, Adrian, and Robin are on page 5.

Luke’s quote is on p. 6, Veronica tells her story on p. 7 and Bruce on – page 8.

Copyright Adrianna Zabrzewska 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND

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