Some women who’ve had mastectomies choose tattoos to outshine the scars on their chests

  • Tools of tattoo artist Senuta’s trade GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, looks at a drawing of a tattoo designed by Tom Senuta, left, before beginning the work at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 15. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tattoo artist Tom Senuta applies a bandage to Melinda Shaw's tattoo after their session at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 21. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tattoo artist Tom Senuta lifts a tattoo stencil from the chest of Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, during her first tattoo session at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 15. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Melinda Shaw of Leeds looks at a drawing of a tattoo designed by Tom Senuta, left, before he begins work on her chest at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton. At right, Senuta lifts the stencil from Shaw’s chest during the first of three sessions. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, shakes hands with Tom Senuta after he worked on her tattoo at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 21. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tom Senuta works on a tattoo for Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 15. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tom Senuta works on a tattoo for Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 15. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, looks at the progress made on her tattoo after a session with Tom Senuta, background, at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 15. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tattoo artist Tom Senuta talks with Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, during her first tattoo session at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 15. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Shaw’s daughter, Olivia Shaw-Merrigan, accompanied her during a tattoo session, as did Shaw’s wife, Meg Merrigan. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tattoo artist Tom Senuta applies a tattoo on the shoulder of Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 21. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tom Senuta works on a tattoo for Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 27. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Meg Merrigan, top, of Leeds, watches as her wife, Melinda Shaw, gets a tattoo from Tom Senuta at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 15. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Shaw gets a look at the tattoo that now accompanies the scar left behind by her double mastectomy. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tom Senuta works on a tattoo for Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 27. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, looks at her completed tattoo with tattoo artist Tom Senuta at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 27. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, poses as tattoo artist Tom Senuta takes a picture of her completed tattoo at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 27. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tattoo artist Tom Senuta applies a tattoo on the shoulder of Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 21. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tattoo artist Tom Senuta applies a tattoo on the shoulder of Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 21. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tattoo artist Tom Senuta applies a tattoo on the shoulder of Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 21. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Melinda Shaw, of Leeds, looks at the progress made on her tattoo after a session with Tom Senuta, background, at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 21. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tattoo artist Tom Senuta applies green soap to Melinda Shaw's tattoo after their session at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 21. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Drawing of a tattoo designed by Tom Senuta for Melinda Shaw rests on a bench at Bang Bang Body Arts in Northampton, Sept. 15. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Shaw’s tattoo extends over her shoulder. She said thinking about the design, which features purple flowers, gave her something to look forward to after her mastectomy. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 10/3/2016 4:33:33 PM

There is a scar, a light pink line running straight across Melinda Shaw’s chest, left after her breasts were removed last year. You can see it as she peels a tight-fitting tank top over her head of silver hair, before inhaling deeply, and lying down on a table, under the bright lights at Bang Bang Body Arts tattoo parlor in Northampton.

“I don’t have any modesty, so you don’t have to worry,” she says. “I don’t have any breasts anymore so it doesn’t matter.”

She wants tattoo artist Tom Senuta to draw a vine with budding purple flowers around the scar, not covering the mark, but almost accentuating it.

Senuta cradles the tattoo gun in his hand, dips the needle in the black ink and presses it to her skin.

“Just remember, I’m here for you for anything,” he says. “We are friends now.”

Shaw and Senuta have met just once before — to create the design, which Senuta has revised a few times to get it just right.

He inserts the ink two or three layers deep into Shaw’s skin. This is her first tattoo, but she doesn’t flinch. “I have very little feeling along the scar,” she says.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer the day after her 55th birthday last year, Shaw, who lives in Leeds with her wife, Meg Merrigan and three of their five children, had a double mastectomy. She was unwilling to let cancer leave the last mark on her chest.

“I didn’t think of myself as a person with a big ugly scar. I felt like a canvas that is waiting to be painted and I got painted,” she says.

A sense of control

Shaw is not alone in turning to body art to cover the scars left by mastectomy. 

Local tattoo artists say that since tattoos have become more popular in recent years, more breast cancer survivors who have had their breasts removed are turning up at their studios seeking to get their chests inked.

“I think they are looking to reclaim their bodies and regain control from a situation that they had no control over,” said Tiffany Matrone, the owner of Bang Bang Body Arts. “And I think it is healing for them.”

Over the past five years, about seven women have come into her shop looking to get their mastectomy scars tattooed, she said.

The most popular designs, by far, are floral, but some woman have chosen to get hearts over where their nipples used to be or even replications of the areola, she said.

Still and strong

Shaw’s wife and one of their daughters, Olivia Shaw-Merrigan, 17, were at Shaw’s side for some of the hours she spend with Senuta. It would take 10 hours, divided among three appointments to finish the tattoo.

About an hour into her first session, Shaw continues to appear unfazed by the needle penetrating her skin.

“You see big biker guys that pass out by now,” says Senuta. “I always had more faith in women than men. She is a pretty tough chick.”

Shaw is still as Senuta works. 

She says she chose a tattoo rather than breast reconstruction after her mastectomy because, for her, breasts are needed only for feeding babies.

“I don’t care about them enough to put them back on,” she says.

A longer journey

Cheryl Bertsch, 55, a nurse from Belchertown, also rejected reconstruction after she had one breast removed 15 years ago, choosing to wear a prosthetic under her bra. But it took her longer to decide to go for a tattoo, a process she began six months ago.

“When I decorated my chest it was honoring the fact that I am comfortable with my body as a woman and my femininity,” Bertsch said.  “It took me a long time to get to this point.”

She has a tattoo of a yellow sunflower blooming on her chest just above where her right breast used to be. There is also a spiraling mandala there surrounded by scenes from nature, like lotus flowers, butterflies and sunflowers.

“It wasn’t about hiding my scars,” Bertsch said. “It was about honoring my journey and my femininity and my love of life and all of those in it that mean so much to me.”

Married to Greg Bertsch, she has three children, Val, 23; Nik, 22; Sam, 20. All of her kids’ astrological signs and the birthstones of her family members are also tattooed on her chest.

Period of mourning

Bertsch, who says she was eating healthy and working out regularly, was shocked to get a breast cancer diagnosis at age 40.

“All of a sudden I found a lump. Initially, I was furious and scared,” she said.

Her father had died of cancer when she was a teenager. “I heard the diagnosis ‘cancer’ and my mind went to the worst possible place it could go.”

After losing her breast, she received chemotherapy which temporarily took away her hair, too. It has taken her all of the time since to reconnect with her femininity and accept her altered body, she says.

“I think that what people don’t realize is that when a person goes through a mastectomy, there is a mourning period,” she said.

Finally, she was able to conclude that the body is just a vessel for the person inside, she says.

 “We really need to love ourselves. We all have blemishes. We all have physical imperfections — those don’t matter.” 

Happy and confident

Scot Padgett, who did Bertsch’s tattoos at Living Art Studio in Northampton, says he is currently tattooing several women’s mastectomy scars. Other tattoo artists say they, too, have seen a bump in the number of women seeking tattoos on chests where breasts used to be.

Cau Janoni of Haven Body Arts Piercing & Tattoo in Northampton tells the story of a breast cancer survivor who walked in around Valentine’s Day three years ago and got tattoos of two large, red roses blooming on her reconstructed breasts, where her nipples would have been.

She left happy, Janoni says, anticipating a Valentine’s Day date. “She felt more confident.”

Looking forward to flowers

Shaw sees her tattoo as a bookend signifying the conclusion of her battle with cancer.

“You pretty much have to stop your life when you get a diagnosis like that,” she said.

The uncertainty and long waits between appointments is hard. But as it turned out, her prognosis was good. 

Fortunately, she says, she didn’t suffer as much as other breast cancer survivors do. She had radiation, but didn’t need chemotherapy.

First, she had a lumpectomy to remove the cancer in one of her breasts. Then, her doctor discovered that the irregular cells might have spread to the rest of her breast tissue.

“They said, ‘We are going to have to do a mastectomy.’ ”

While she had cancer in just one breast, she asked that both breasts be removed so that her body would be symmetrical. She also didn’t want to wear a prosthetic and didn’t want to have to worry about cancer in her other breast down the line. 

Shaw says she doesn’t remember a lot of pain after surgery, but she knew she didn’t want another operation. Reconstruction never seemed like a good option. But a tattoo could, in a way, fill a void that the breasts had left. Thinking about a design of purple flowers, she says, gave her something to look forward to.

As the third and final tattooing session draws to an end, Senuta bites his lip as he fills in the last purple petal.

Shaw is looking up at the ceiling. Eyes glazed over, she is relaxing to the electric hum of the tattoo machine. 

When it stops and the room goes quiet, she sits up and stares in the mirror for a moment.

Her chest and shoulder are now like a trellis for a wispy vine of winding purple flowers. Some are in full bloom, some are just buds.

“I feel that it is sort of my victory stamp,” she says. “It’s a statement of freedom, health and conquering cancer.”

“It’s beautiful.”

Lisa Spear can be reached at Lspear@gazettenet.com.




Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy