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Breast-cancer survivor Casandra Graham’s tattoo. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)
Breast-cancer survivor Casandra Graham’s tattoo. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

For many cancer survivors, tattoos are ‘a badge of honour’ Add to ...

A photo of a woman’s chest tattooed to cover mastectomy scars, which went viral after she posted it on Facebook, has highlighted a growing trend among cancer survivors. More and more are getting inked, not just to beautify surgical sites, but as a badge of honour – a visible reminder that they beat the disease.

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Casandra Graham had a single mastectomy after being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer in 2009. And although she opted for reconstruction – moving tissue from her abdomen to create a new left breast – she wasn’t keen on having a surgically created nipple.

“I had looked on the Internet at probably thousands of photos of nipple reconstructions and as good as the job may be, it’ll never be exactly the same as your other one because it’s just not natural anymore,” Graham, 38, said from her home in London, Ont. “And I didn’t like how it looked. So I said, you know what, I’m just not going to do it at all. And since I happened to know a couple of tattoo artists – my husband owns a shop – I’ll just get it tattooed.”

Graham put together a design that combined several images she found online, including small hearts, a pink ribbon that symbolizes breast cancer, some tiny stars. The central motif of her pink and black tattoo is a treble clef.

“I can’t sing, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.… I’m not a musician of any sort, but I really like music and it was one of the strong things when I was alone that kind of kept my spirits up.”

Graham, the mother of two teenagers, has 16 other tattoos, including a pink ribbon on the back of her neck to commemorate her godmother who died of breast cancer. She described the one adorning her reconstructed left breast as “a very girly tattoo,” soft and flowy.

“You know how people get pink-ribbon tattoos or buttons or clips or whatever and they say ‘survivor’ or they say ‘courage’ or ‘hope.’ I wanted something kind of like ‘survivor,’ but I didn’t want it to be like, yeah, I’m just surviving my life.

“Survivor seems too cliché for me. So I had in pink writing around the side of the tattoo, I had them write: ‘I am living,’ because I feel like I’m not just getting by, surviving one day to the next. I’m actually living my life now. I don’t see things the way I did before my diagnosis. I see them very differently.”

While Peter Laneas, 36, didn’t choose to ink the word “survivor” as part of the tattoo on his upper right arm, the design declares that in his battle with cancer, he has come out the winner.

The Toronto actor was diagnosed with testicular cancer twice – the first time in late 2002 at age 26, and in his other testicle in early 2006 when he was 29.

On his 35th birthday, Laneas was in a tattoo shop with his brother and decided on the spur of the moment to get another tat – he already had four – to mark more than five years of being cancer-free.

“It was sort of impulsive and the tattoo artist, she was amazing,” he said. “I was thinking like a scorecard or something like that. I didn’t know what I wanted to do exactly and my brother helped design it.”

The tattoo, which is written in Greek to reflect his half-Greek heritage, says “cancer zero and me two, in Roman numerals,” explained Laneas. The scorecard is inked in red, yellow, blue and white, the colours in the flags of countries that reflect his ethnicity – Greek, Slavic-Macedonian and Ukrainian.

Underneath is written “IV Adam,” or For Adam, a memorial to Adam DeSousa of Kitchener, Ont., who died in 2003 of testicular cancer at age 18, prompting his mother Cheryl Perry to found the Canadian Testicular Cancer Association.

Laneas is one of many cancer survivors who has posted his story and photo on the Facebook page, Why We Ink, a project begun by Julie Fitzsimmons with the aim of putting together a book to celebrate those who have beaten cancer and to remember those who have died of the disease. Proceeds from the yet-unpublished book will go to cancer support groups.

Fitzsimmons, a Toronto casting director, lost her brother Owen to colon cancer in 2010. The tattoo on her right shoulder of a dove is a memorial to her older sibling.

Laneas, who met Fitzsimmons through his acting work, decided to be photographed as a boxer for the book, though he has never been in the ring. “I’ve chosen to own the representation of the cancer fighter,” he said. “I’m not afraid to be that kick-ass guy.

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