My Mastectomy Tattoo

My Mastectomy Tattoo Story

I got a surprise recently when I spotted pictures of my tattoo on pinterest.  Scott posted pictures of it on his blog years ago and apparently the tattoo has taken on a life of its own. It has been pinned nearly 500 times and is linked on as many websites. Since that many people are being exposed to it, I guess it is time that I moved the pictures to my own blog and wrote its story myself. I’ll keep this post short but I’ll move it to a “breast cancer” tab and keep adding to it as I go.

I have had so many positive comments from women about how much my art has helped them to come to terms with their bodies and their scars that I want this to be a more permanent resource that people can refer their friends to and revisit as they wish. I promise to get some professional pictures done along the way as well.

My Mastectomy Tattoo

This tattoo was a collaboration between Tina Bafaro, the tattooist, and me to cover the scars from a bilateral mastectomy.  It took one Sunday a month over two and a half years to complete.

Both Tina and I were featured in a documentary on MSNBC called “MSNBC Investigates: Tattooed Women” which aired Mar. 26 of 2001. The show included several other women tattoo artists and their clients and is worth seeing if you have the chance to do so. The documentary was the “child” of  Michelle Smawley, an amazing producer who came out from New York with her film crew and turned our house into a film studio for an afternoon. They moved furniture, lights, had us take tags off of all the animals, and tried to, as she said, “make the place look less like a library.” :)

In future posts I’ll try to answer all the questions I’ve been asked over the years:

  • About my decision to have a mastectomy
  • Why I opted not to get reconstruction
  • How Tina and I developed the tattoo
  • How it was to get tattooed … there
  • Feedback I have received about the documentary
  • And to answer any new questions

Mastectomy Tattoo Resources:

Click here to visit Tina’s website.

Here is a newer video interview with Tina:

Here is an interview with Vyvyn Lazonga specifically about mastectomy tattoos, Tina shared Vyvyn’s shop when we started my project:

Comments from Scott’s blog:

  1. sheu

    dear inga, i happened to find ur beautiful pix while i was preparing my speech about the rising breast cancer incidence in asia. i am a breast surgeon and have never ever seen such a beautiful “postmastectomy result”. i learned from ur pix. this idea of beauty opens a new perspective. i hope u allow me to share ur pix with my patients. just to remind them that this creative option does exist.

  2. Bobbie Kennedy

    dear artist, I am a 61 year old woman that will be having a double mastectomy on the 14th of Sept. Till yesterday I was going to have reconsturtion surgery, and have now changed my mind,, I am interested in having my scars covered with a beautiful tatoo,, but since a tatoo is a permenrnt as removing your breast , I dont want a bad job, could you advise me where I should start looking for a person, and prices, It will still be 6 months out before I could even start with something, but I would like to know something in advance, any help you can send my way would be of great help, not many people my age just start looking for tatoos (smile) Thanks Bobbie

  3. Diane

    I’m facing a double mastectomy in November…and I think this is so beautiful. I’ve looked at pics of reconstructive surgery..and was somewhat horrified at the scarring. I have one tattoo, and was looking to get another – pink ribbon involved, of course. I LOVE, LOVE this. You’re an inspiration to me. Thanks.

  4. Diane A.

    I posted one of the comments above, more than a year ago. I have finished my reconstruction surgeries, and got my tattoos. : ) You were my inspiration…thank you.

  5. I have never liked tattoos and never saw the point of having them – until I saw what you created for this beautiful woman! I hope you are letting the tattoo community and the breast cancer community know of your fabulous work…

  6. July 20, 2012 at 6:29 pm

I am also a BCS. Mine was S1 & fortunately found early. I applaud how brave Inga is with every thing she has been through. What a beautiful gift Tina has given such a strong woman!

95 Comments on “My Mastectomy Tattoo”

  1. As if you could be more amazing…Lady, I just don’t even have words. Beautiful inside, outside, and all around.

    • Inga says:

      Thank you so much, you made my day! It is hard enough to put pictures of yourself on the internet, but these up the vulnerability considerably :)

  2. Cathy McDonald says:

    Stunning. What beautiful artwork! Who knew? I knew about the fabulous vines, but didn’t know how much more spectacular your body art is. Thanks for having the courage to share!

  3. […] Many years ago, I watched a TV special on tattoos. One woman’s ink stuck w/me. She had a full breastplate harness tattooed on her chest and around her back … after a bilateral mastectomy. On Monday, I went in search of this tattoo for Frotober Day 10. In the course of my search, I discovered that the special aired in 2001. I also learned that the woman was Inga Duncan Thornell. I discovered that she did a blog post about her tattoo this year after finding that it was pinned all across the web. When I saw the pics this 10+ years later, I was again struck by the power of the “message.” Inga didn’t just survive cancer, she defeated it … and then stuck her tongue out at it!! If you want to read a little more about her story, you can find it here. […]

  4. Because at 18, my USAF career and life was more important than months of cosmetic recovery with a croissant expander to remove third-degree burns from an ATV accident when I was twelve, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I ever had a mastectomy, this is what I’d do to reconstruct my body. ♥ this and glad I found the article!

    • Inga says:

      Thank you. I have a friend who went through tissue expansion and I felt so sorry for how much discomfort she had and how much time it all took and the fact that her result is not what she expected. Surgeons always say that the goal of reconstruction is to make you look “normal” in clothes, not to look good naked. >^..^<

  5. Karen Koskoff says:

    I would love to find someone in my area who could do a tattoo like yours. I too have had DM. Can you advise me. What you have done is restore a woman in a most profound way. I thank you on behalf of all breast cancer survivors.

  6. Tattoos « says:

    […] See and learn more about Inga’s tattoo on her website. […]

  7. Tracye says:

    I have just had a double mastectomy and seen it in the mirror (frown), the lady in the next bed googled tattoos post mastectomy and she showed me your tattoo (smile), I now know I can do something really beautiful from something really horrible, thankyou for sharing.

    • Inga says:

      I am so glad! You are exactly who I posted those pictures for. I’d love to see what you pick. :)

      • Kim says:

        There are no coincidences. I am seriously considering have a DM. Long story short, I had breast reduction to relieve chronic neck and shoulder pain. The results are very good with one terrible exception. Now I have chronic nerve pain. The stinging, burning, barbed wire, sand paper under my skin pain in and around my breasts 24/7. Nothing has helped. The Docs tell me I will just have to live with it. Oh yea? Well, maybe not. And maybe your tattoo will be a little slice of light in the darkness.

      • Inga says:

        My only concern would be that more surgery might irritate the nerves further. It would be so cool if it would help – those would be awful symptoms to have to live with <3

      • Gabrielle says:

        I don’t mean to discourage you, but i suffer from everything you’ve mentioned since my bilateral mastectomy. I, too, was told I’d have to just live with it. I think once the nerve damage is done, it’s done. I sure hope I’m wrong, but I’d hate to see you endure more surgery and still suffer. Make sure to explore every option with a specialist…or three!

  8. Lynn says:

    You really are an inspiration Inga! Your tattoo is just beautiful! I love tattoos anyway, and have several, but this is just amazing. I have ancient scars (from the 60s!) due to surgery for polio on both of my legs…I have only had one tattoo over one of my scars, which is just some script (“Blame it on a simple twist of fate”), but seeing your wonderful artwork I may have to think about getting the other five scars covered with some pretty stuff! I wish you good health and happiness x

    • Inga says:

      Thank you for commenting. I have seen some beautiful “stockings” tattooed with lace tops. Ooh, I have so many ideas, we ought to get together with coffee & pinterest :)

  9. hellsfairy says:

    Inga you are truly inspirational! I love tattoos anyway and have several myself, but your story and your tattoo touched my heart! I have many scars due to having had polio in the 1950s, and recently had “Blame it on a simple twist of fate” tattooed over one of them. However after having seen your beautiful work I am tempted to have some pretty artwork over the remaining 5 scars…even though I shall be 60 in a few weeks time! Thank you for posting your wonderful story, I wish you health and happiness always x

  10. I was devastated when I found I could not have reconstruction after my double mastectomy because my oncologist wanted me to go through radiation (even though I’d done chemo prior to the DM). I knew that 7 months down the road I would not want to go through another surgery when I was feeling fine, and would already be used to having no breasts – not to mention a whole new wardrobe! And then a friend posted your photo on Facebook, and I knew there was another option for me.

    I never liked tattoos before, and never saw the point. But I love this, and so do my mother and daughter. Since I’m still doing radiation, I have plenty of time to start designing and finding the right artist.

    Thank you for giving me another option!

    • Inga says:

      I am thrilled that you found my pix! It seems really wrong to say this but there are some real benefits to having both both breasts removed rather than just one. With both, you don’t need to wear a bra and prosthesis and if you do opt for reconstruction down the road, you don’t need to try to match a natural breast.

      Speaking of wardrobe, the upper edge of mine peeks out of low cut tops and looks like lace. Every once in a while someone will ask… “Is that a tattoo?” LOL

      Best wishes on your recovery and keep in touch!

    • kathleen says:

      I had a chemo & radiation. The radiation was only on the left side and I had a double mastectomy, but had them done a year apart. I went through the reconstruction for the radiated side, which is a Tram Flap. I was in the hospital for 5 days, and walked bent over for weeks. It was the most painful and invasive surgery I had ever had, and they think thats what brought my cancer back, because I was opened up so long in surgery. Had I known how painful it was going to be, I wouldnt have had it, but at 36 years old and single at the time I was scared and wanted to be back to normal. I’ll never know what normal is like…or what my old normal is like again. I had the stretcher on the other side, and almost passed out and did get sick after one of my visits to the surgeon. I will never have another surgery again, unless its life or death. I would love to have it all removed. I wish I had seen this tattoo 10 years ago. The chemo I am on forever, made me gain weight, and the radiated side gained weight too….the other side did not because it was all implant….well I lost the weight, but because the tissue on the left side is not breast tissue, I still am very uneven and have to wear a prosthetic anyway. I’m too young, to cover up my body and hide….this would have been so much easier….thank you for your inspiration…

      • Inga says:

        Kathleen, I am so sorry you had to go through all that! I wish I could come up with something more helpful to say. Yes, you are much to young to cover up and hide so keep in touch, OK? I want to hear how you are doing.

      • kathleen says:

        Yes I will keep in touch….thank you for your response…. <3

  11. Dear Inga, ever since I saw your picture of your tattoo on Facebook, I haven’t been able to forget about it, I am lucky enough not to have had to go through what you and several ladies have been,but I find so inspirational that I just had to say hello and well done you for being so brave to share this with everybody, and on top of that,the tattoo itself is just stunning <3
    lots of love, Vivian xxx

    • Inga says:

      Thank you, Vivian, getting over my shyness in order to share it has been hard, but I felt was important to share it.

      • Kim Hoskins says:

        I had a BMX with immediate reconstruction last June age 37. Your picture is beautiful and inspirational. Best wishes to you!

  12. Dear Inga: This tattoo is magnificent and I congratulate you. The moment it occurred to me to tattoo my chest over my mastectomy scar in 1980, I never doubted the inclination. After we designed the tattoo and created what is sometimes called the Amazon poster or the Warrior poster, I realized how much support it gave to other women. Yours is obviously doing the same and your design and its execution is extraordinary. Over the next years, you will discover what a profound gift you have offered the world. I congratulate you and I thank you. For a view of ‘the poster’ go to Blessings, Deena

  13. steph says:

    This tattoo is fake.

  14. […] Please click here and see Inga Duncan Thornell’s blog. Centrestage belongs to her today and rightly so. […]

  15. […] photo of Inga Duncan Thornell, a breast cancer survivor who underwent a mastectomy, was borrowed from the book Bodies of […]

  16. […] print of Inga Duncan Thornell, a breast cancer survivor who underwent a mastectomy, was borrowed from a book Bodies of […]

  17. […] photo of Inga Duncan Thornell, a breast cancer survivor who underwent a mastectomy, was borrowed from the book Bodies of […]

  18. […] photo of Inga Duncan Thornell, a breast cancer survivor who underwent a mastectomy, was borrowed from the book Bodies of […]

  19. […] photo of Inga Duncan Thornell, a breast cancer survivor who underwent a mastectomy, was borrowed from the book Bodies of […]

  20. stella presley says:

    i want you to know that i have twice posted your tattoo photo. (1) it is incredibly beautiful (2) it is brave of you to share (3) it is empowering to women whether they have faced the challenge of cancer or not (4) body acceptance and celebration is a powerful message to all women (5) it is also enlightening to men who objectify the female body (6) i want to fight against FB’s archaic policies when it comes to the non-sexualized image of the female body! so, thank you for your strength, your courage, and your beauty. thank you for sharing with us all.

  21. Lisa Shirley says:

    Hey Inga, I saw you ages ago on a show on women and tatooes. This is an amazing piece of art. Lisa Shirley — remember me? :-)

  22. vandijkarmor says:

    Wow! This looks amazing!!! What a beautiful tattoo and what a beautiful way to cover up the scars! If i ever have to undergo a masectomy (which i hope will never happen), this would definitely be something i would consider.

  23. […] beautiful piece is the result of a collaboration between Inga Thornell, a cancer survior who’s illness resulted in a double mastectomy , and Tina Bafaro, an […]

  24. […] foto pertenece al libro Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, y la modelo es Inga Duncan Thornell, una mujer que sobrevivió a un cáncer de […]

  25. antonio sabater says:

    i like you, your personality and your body.

  26. Danilsa says:

    You are a hero, your tattoo is beautiful. You are a very special woman, a survivor

  27. Marlen says:

    I understand what you went through. What you did is a demonstration of courage to be a survivor of this disease that strikes so many women in the world. Go ahead.

  28. jenni mercedes says:

    Mil felicitaciones y gracia por darnos esa valentía de seguir sin mamas en el mundo

  29. Felicitaciones por esa valentia ,con mis dos mastectomias una en el 2006 y la ultima en el 2011, he quedado con mucho dolor imposibilitada de volver a trabajar en lo que me encanta, lamentablemente no podre hacermela, pero aplaudo tu valentia un abrazo y muchos parabienes para ud.

  30. Amador Montaño Vazquez says:

    Grandiosa entre los grandes!!!!!!!!!

  31. CLAUDIA says:

    MUCHAS FELICIDADES por su actitud, Es usted un ejemplo para muchas mujeres y nos demuestra q aunque nos falte parte de nuestro cuerpo, podamos encontrar cosas bellas para seguir viviendo y sobre todo enfrentar lo que sigue. Gracias por su gran ejemplo.

  32. […] Esta no es la primera vez que la poderosa imagen ha sido compartida en Internet. La Coalición de Cáncer de mama de Tenessee la subió en su página de Facebook el pasado mes de enero sin que Facebook la censurara. ¿De dónde sale? La foto de la discordia pertenece al libro Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, y la modelo es Inga Duncan Thornell, una mujer que sobrevivó a un cáncer de mama y que explica su dolorosa experiencia en su blog personal. […]

  33. Queenie Cant says:

    Hello Inga

    I found your front pic on a web search a while ago – I can’t even remember where now and it literally put my shitty day right into perspective. The pic made me smile so big that something so stunningly beautiful could come from what must have been such a traumatic situation. I have since found the back pic also and blogged about it on my site – It was been liked and shared many times, however I wanted to write to you and let you know where it had been posted, and for you to see the amazing comments it has received (apart from one moron!) You are a brave and courageous lady, who has I’m sure inspired many many women, and from reading the many comments on here, I know it has helped many women through a similar situation. You rock Inga!!!!

    • Inga says:

      Thank you for your supportive comments. I am pretty shy so I admit it takes more courage to peek at comments than anything else! :)

  34. Connie says:

    I was diagnosed with breast cancer 4.5 years ago, one year after my divorce. I had my breast removed and am just now thinking about dating again. My sister sent me a photo of your tattoo two days ago and I have decided to get a tattoo for myself. Thank you very much for your photo. I am 54 years old, very self-conscious about my mastectomy scar, and now I think I might be able to cover my scar with something beautiful, I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to do it without seeing your beautiful tattoo. Thank you.

    • Inga says:

      Yes, go for it, using that space to adorn your body with beauty rather than keeping a scar that reminds you personally of pain or lack is the best gift you can give yourself or a potential partner!

  35. […] Facebook has evidently relented:the photo remains up. Seattle artist Tina Bafaro did the tattoo on Inga Duncan Thornell after her bilateral mastectomy. Here’s what it looks like from […]

  36. Mary H says:

    When I had my bilateral mastectomy in Nov 2011, I planned and accepted tissue expanders, followed by silicone implants. Early on I knew I did not want nipple reconstruction and nipple tattoos. I wanted something pretty, maybe roses or other flowers in place of nipples. Of course, searching the web for images, I came across yours. Due to some serious complications, I will not have my implants permanently. One has been removed due to complications. The other will be removed with another surgery next month, a DIEP. I still plan to cover up my scars with beautiful ink. I will be looking for the right artist, to help me design and apply my covers. I can only hope I find an artist as talented as yours, and willing to work with me to design and cover over time. MH – Moreno Valley, CA.

    • Inga says:

      You have my best wishes, MH, for your surgery. Have you thought of getting in touch with my tattooist, Tina, for your art? You are not really that far away! Keep in touch, I’d love to know how you are doing. >^..^< inga

  37. Keith Roberts says:

    I think it’s beautiful!

  38. […] de las fotografías era Inga Duncan Thornell, una mujer que sobrevivió a la enfermedad y que había contado su experiencia en un blog. En su momento, más de 180.000 personas compartieron la foto en Facebook a modo de protesta. […]

  39. Laurie says:

    I just want to tell you that I am so inspired by your tattoo and your story. Your artist does incredible work. It’s the most beautiful tattoo I’ve ever seen.

  40. Laurie says:

    Do I have permission to re-post your photos? I will credit you and the photographer, if appropriate.

  41. Carly Kroll says:

    Hi Inga, I am running tomorrow a little story about you and the tattoo on my blog – http://www.theinkdiaries. Have credited both yourself and linked back to here and Tina Bafaro.
    You are a great inspiration and one hell of a lady! xx Much love. Carly

  42. […] this year an image of Inga Duncan Thornell’s mastectomy tattoo was posted on Facebook. It quickly went viral, but was removed shortly afterwards under […]

  43. Amy Beth says:

    Let me start by saying how much of an inspiration you are to me! Last year I had a double mastectomy with 2-step implant reconstruction. My doctor’s office has been trying to convince me to get a nipple tattoo but what I really want is bloomed roses instead. I was cautioned against it because a typical tattoo artist wouldn’t understand my situation and I could get an infection and lose my implants (love a good ol’ scare tactic!) But I really want this. I am in NJ and have searched online and have not found a specialist. Any thoughts or ideas for me?

    • Inga says:

      Amy, Thank you for your compliment. I love your idea of roses, I guess I would just keep checking until I did find one. Instead of asking regular tattooists, maybe ask the ones who work with with the surgeon if they would like to tattoo a rose instead of just a nipple? They have the same skills…

      • Amy Beth says:

        I found a great tattoo artist who specializes in tattoos on reconstructed breasts with implants! Her work is amazing! I have an appointment in January. She’s 6 hours from me but it is worth it. Thanks so much for sharing your story and picture. You have touched so many people, but especially those of us who have had to suffer through losing our breasts. I truly can’t thank you enough! :)

      • Inga says:

        Congratulations, that is wonderful! Remember… when you are getting the design transferred on is the time to make sure both sides are perfectly aligned, it is awfully hard to fix it afterward ;) Please send me a pic when you are done! just between us, unless you’d like it posted.

  44. sharon pendola says:

    I admire these women for their strength courage. They are wonderful people. Thank you for sharing your amazing stories and photos, I know it isn’t an easy thing to do, so thank you!

  45. […] was done. She decided if the tattoo was going to have a life of its own, she should start her own blog to tell her […]

  46. […] been thinking seriously about Tats for where my Tits used to be, and I couldn’t help pointing out Inga Duncan Thornell’s work she had done after her double mastectomy. It. Is. Gorgeous!!!! There are also a couple of very […]

  47. […] THORNELL, una mujer que sobrevivió a un cáncer de mama y que relató su dolorosa experiencia en su blog personal. Y una originalísima e impactante fotografía reproducida en ese blog, quedó plasmada en el libro […]

  48. […] took Inga Duncan Thornell, a Seattle life coach, one appointment per month with tattoo artist Tina Bafaro for over two and a […]

  49. […] took Inga Duncan Thornell, a Seattle life coach, one appointment per month with tattoo artist Tina Bafaro for over two and a […]

  50. […] took Inga Duncan Thornell, a Seattle life coach, one appointment per month with tattoo artist Tina Bafaro for over two and a […]

  51. […] Inga Duncan Thornell of Seattle, Washington had a double prophylactic mastectomy.  HER INSPIRING STORY … […]

  52. […] Please click here and see Inga Duncan Thornell’s blog. Centrestage belongs to her today and rightly so. […]

  53. Kathleen Sullivan says:

    Hi Inga, I don’t usually respond to posts from anyone I don’t know on Facebook, but the photo of your tattoo completely blew me away and really touched my heart. What an absolutely brilliant way to overcome the trauma of a double mastectomy! The tattoo is so very feminine and beautiful you really figured out how to make yourself feel very feminine despite your trauma.
    Beautiful lady you are. Warm wishes, Kathleen.

    • Inga says:

      Thank you Kathleen. My artist, Tina and I saw keeping that much ink feminine as a particular challenge. She was able to combine the trompe de l’oeil effect of the solidly inked areas to hide the scars and odd contours of the mastectomy while keeping the colors light and leaving open space in the knotwork to lighten the overall effect of the piece. She is brilliant. Best to you, Inga

  54. Sherrie says:

    Thank you for showing me that I don’t have to persevere relentlessly. I am entering my fourth year of reconstruction due to complications and a compromised immune system. Your pictures showed me that my disfigurement can be replaced by beauty with tattoo art. I’m not afraid anymore. Thank you.

    • Inga says:

      Sherrie, Thank you for your comment. I’m confident that art could help! Your beauty is defined by your imagination, not by those complications! Get some art history books out of the library and see what styles inspire you. Another good resource for art history and costume design is Pinterest. There are so many good ideas there. Feel free to email me as well.

  55. Susanne says:

    I came across a picture of this work just now in some click bait “look at these awesome tattoos on women” website. How surprised was I to recognize the name associated with the tattoo as a customer of mine when I had a dog scooping business! So I googled and found your blog. How beautiful!
    I drive by all the time (as I now live only several blocks away) and hope you and yours are well.

    • Inga says:

      Clickbait, funny, different headlines have even caught me and sent me to it a couple of times. It is great to hear from you, I thought I saw you around town a couple of times but wasn’t sure. We ought to get together for coffee, my contact info is the same.

  56. Coral Lee H says:

    Your tattoo is so very inspirational. I had surgery 2 years ago next month. Double Mastectomy with no chemo or radiation but no reconstruction either. The surgeon that does that at Kaiser won’t do it on someone unless they are close to the right BMI for their height.

    I am not sure if a Tattoo will look right for me. I have a lot of extra skin and fat on one side and then not a lot on the other due to an infection on the other. But it was going to be one choice at one point that I was going to pursue…..

    • Inga says:

      Coral Lee, Congratulations on your 2 years! I’ve been thinking about what you describe and tattoo way be a really good way to hide any unevenness you may have from each side being different. You could take advantage of the Tattoo’s ability to fool the eye by making your contours look smoother than they are. PM me on Facebook sometime :)

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