Cancer: Marking Survival With a Special Tattoo

Two years after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I decided to mark the occasion with a tattoo. I had survived treatment, I had negotiated the wild ride of posttreatment recovery, and it was time to do the slightly reckless thing I had always wanted to do, to say, "Yoo-hoo, still alive!"

Deciding on a spot was easy. It had to go above my ankle. The aging process has set in everywhere else. But what would it look like? What tattoo could I place on my body that would be with me for the rest of my hopefully long life? I was 44 years old, a wife and mother of two children, and while I was committed to the idea of taking what felt like a bold step, I also wanted to hang on to some shred of dignity.

Friends made suggestions. A rose. A tree. Something living to symbolize life, hope. Amy, a friend who is an observant Jew, at first tried to talk me out of it. "You can't be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you get a tattoo," she argued. "Not my problem," I responded. Having failed to dissuade me, she settled down to ponder the dilemma of what to choose. Perhaps a tattoo of something Biblical, she suggested, like the dove that returned to Noah's ark with a tree branch, demonstrating that dry land was near. Hope. Life. Very tempting. But I didn't have that yes moment. This was a big decision, and I needed that all-caps YES.

Looking through pictures of tattoos, I discovered that people will ink the most amazing and atrocious things onto their bodies. A simple, well-placed question mark can mean so much. A ragged inscription can look so tawdry. I despaired of mustering the wit or inspiration needed for the occasion.

Lo Ann, the Vietnamese woman who cuts my hair—my hair therapist—gave the problem serious thought. "In my culture," she explained, "when people go through difficult times we give them pictures of boats or bridges to symbolize passage to a better place." Immediately I seized the idea of a bridge. Fittingly, the image evokes an ongoing, unpredictable journey. The cancer could return, and in any event, my life will certainly hold more challenges. I had my all-caps YES.

But what bridge? I examined pictures of bridges on the Internet. There were so many: bridges for backyard gardens, famous bridges, paintings of bridges, bridges from around the world. Should my choice be based on appearance or symbolic value?

My friend Cathy, an English teacher, is always up for a literary challenge. She suggested the Concord Bridge outside Boston, which Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to in "Concord Hymn" as "the rude bridge that arched the flood."

I chewed on the line, seeing how it perfectly captured my passage through the rigors of cancer treatment to life beyond. Emerson wrote "Concord Hymn" in 1837 for the dedication of a monument to the first battle of the Revolutionary War. The poem speaks of the loss of life, the passage of time, gratitude and the need to remember.

The waiting room of the tattoo parlor was packed with college-age women. I imagined them looking at me and thinking, "Whose mom is that?" I thought of telling them that they were too young, that this should be a rite of passage for those of us who have lived enough to have something permanent to say.

I brought a picture of the Concord Bridge to show Dave, the tattoo artist, what I wanted. He had to modify it a bit, explaining, "If you can't figure out what it is within 10 seconds, it isn't a good tattoo." My friend Ranit, a doctor, came with me make sure I wasn't at risk of contracting hepatitis C from a dirty needle.

She asked the right questions, surveyed the scene and took pictures. Ranit had performed a similar function at my chemotherapy treatments, but without the pictures. This was more fun.

Friends have asked me if it was painful, and I never know how to answer that question. Like childbirth, it was the kind of pain that was beside the point, pain in the service of something I wanted. Dave drew the bridge, prepared the ink and needles and started scratching the image into my skin. The edges of the bridge curl over my bone and in those spots the scratching felt more like cutting. I had gotten to know needles over the previous two years, so this part of the experience was at least familiar.

When at last Dave was finished, I looked down at my newly, indelibly marked ankle. He had done a beautiful job. Ranit and I went for coffee afterward, and I admired the result. My tattoo is perfect, because it is mine, my own private war memorial.