How radical tattoos helped her fight breast cancer
(CNN)Bernadette McLaughlin’s world turned upside-down on April 16, 1990, when a visit to the doctor revealed a surprising breast cancer diagnosis.
“I was only 36 years old, and I was single,” she said. “I just couldn’t process anything he was saying.”
She worked full-time as a special-education teacher in New Jersey, but her most important job was raising her 8-year-old son, Michael.
McLaughlin dreaded the thought of telling people she had cancer.
But after six weeks, she was rushed to emergency surgery for a second staph infection and lost the option of reconstruction entirely. Flattened, misshapen lumps of fatty tissue and scars from 28 surgeries were all that remained.
McLaughlin struggled with her appearance after losing her breasts. She removed all the full-length mirrors from her home, preferring not to see herself in them, and pined over the lumps on her chest when she caught glimpses of her torso in the bathroom. “Every time I looked in the mirror, you think I’d be mad about the scars; I’d say, ‘Oh God, I hate that fat.’ I hate it, you know, and I was obsessed with it.”
McLaughlin didn’t find solace until years later when Michael, then in his 30s, gave her a tablet computer. With his help, McLaughlin opened a Twitter account. She became fast Twitter friends with Friday Jones, a celebrity tattoo artist and cast member on Oxygen’s “Tattoos After Dark.”
Through Jones, McLaughlin discovered a community of breast cancer survivors and mastectomy tattoo enthusiasts. Jones introduced McLaughlin to P.ink Day, a nationwide event in which volunteers connect breast cancer survivors with experienced artists, providing complimentary tattoos to cover their scars during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
P.ink Day founder Noel Franus said “most breast cancer survivors are told they have two options after a mastectomy: reconstruction or no reconstruction. We believe they deserve a third option that most aren’t familiar with: tattoos.”
P.ink Day, now in its fifth year, has provided tattoos for more than 175 survivors in 25 cities. When a last-minute slot opened up at P.ink Day in New York, Jones recommended McLaughlin. “She tweeted me and said, ‘This one’s for you, Bern,’ ” McLaughlin said.
‘Life still goes on’
McLaughlin’s first tattoo was a breeze. Having lost almost all feeling in her chest due to nerve damage from radiation, she never felt the needle puncture her skin. Wispy black vines and flowers reminiscent of lace spread from her left shoulder down to the center of her chest.
“I became so obsessed with that tattoo, I forgot I had the lumps.” One year later, she was ready for another tattoo to cover her right side. This time, her son would join her.
She continued the vine across her chest, embellishing it with yellow roses, symbolic of life and rebirth to show that, “even in the coldest winters where everything is dead, out of the worst possible things that can happen to you, there’s still life. Life still goes on.”
Michael got a matching yellow rose on his forearm. “This tattoo will always remind me of not just her, not just this day, but of everything she’s done for me,” he said, recalling the years his mother silently endured breast cancer in order to preserve his childhood.
McLaughlin doesn’t miss her breasts anymore. “People could look at (my chest) and say it’s really ugly, and I looked at it that way too, until I got the tattoos.”
She will celebrate 17 years cancer-free in April but still considers herself a patient. Three hard-fought battles taught her to never get too comfortable.
To women fighting similar battles, McLaughlin shares this life lesson: “You live with cancer, but you don’t let cancer ruin your life.”