Inga Duncan Thornell

Personal & Planetary Transformation

The Tattoo

6/25/20 Here is a photo taken by my friend Keri:

March 29, 2018 I am featured on the blog, Women who shaped Breast Cancer history.

Here is the link:

photo: Tina Bafaro

10/5/2015 A New Magazine Interview

My tattoo was featured in a Polish Magazine article this morning. The journalist, Zuzia, had written to me about a month ago and asked some insightful questions. I no longer have Mom to translate the Polish for me so I can’t tell what part of my answers she used so I thought I would just paste in the full interview:

  1. After all these years what does your tattoo mean to you? Do you feel that it gives you extra power or healing?

My tattoo is a wonderful piece of art. It is complete and whole and doesn’t appear to be a mere “cover-up” for scars. What is has done for me is to enable me to completely forget about the scars, actually I just realized I had forgotten about the original breasts. I know so many women who feel “less-than” after these surgeries as if their lives are forever divided between before and after and I just don’t feel that way, I just feel like myself but more colorful.

2. How does it feel to see your chest in newspapers, documentaries, books?

I am a shy person so when Tina Bafaro and I were approached to be featured in a segment of the “MSNBC Investigates: Tattooed Women” we both initially said, ‘No,” but the positive feedback I had gotten from the many cancer survivors who had seen the tattoo compelled me to tell my story. After the documentary aired, the producer said they had received feedback from women who said things like that they hadn’t left their homes since their mastectomies and now felt motivated to find some support.

Since then in 2013, my tattoo pictures were used by the Huffington Post, Atrium Magazine, Guardian UK, Hoax Slayer, and were used to force Facebook to change their policy on mastectomy photos. I hadn’t planned on becoming a mastectomy poster-girl, but if my pictures can help more women to make decisions about their care or to feel better about their bodies, then I will try to keep my blushes to myself.

  1. How do you recall the process of making the tattoo? Did you make a special bond with Tina Bafaro? Was this process a kind of new start for you?

My tattoo was the final stage of a multi-year process that began with my mother’s breast cancer diagnosis and finally ended with my tattoo as a beautiful souvenir. The tattoo itself took one Sunday a month over two and a half years to complete and was a true collaboration between Tina Bafaro, the tattooist, and me. In fact, long after it was completed, we were trying to remember which elements of the design had been each of our ideas and we were hysterical that neither of us could recall except for the bee on my back that we both remembered my Spouse-Man insisting had to be there.

Here is the link to the online magazine


9/10/2015 New Article:


My Picture was just used in a Swiss article for Oncology Doctors.

Click to see the complete page: Patientenkompetenz


I’m in good company on The Huffington Post


2/25/2014, Huffington ran this headless picture of me as part of this feature:

Cancer can be one of the most devastating diagnoses, and it takes a special kind of courage to channel grief into something meaningful.

And that’s exactly the case for the cancer patients highlighted in the stories below. Read about one young woman who rocked a “chemo mohawk,” and another who turned her double mastectomy into a canvas… 

Click here for the full article: The Huffington Post


Introducing Atrium Magazine:

Atrium Magazine
Photo credit for cover art: Tina Bafaro

Last Summer I was contacted by Alice Dreger, the Guest Editor of Atrium 12. Atrium is the Magazine of The Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program of Northwestern University. She saw my tattoo somewhere online and asked if I would be interested in being a part of her issue. She sent me a link to the previous issues and told me a little about her theme, Bad Girls. I was intrigued both by her background in Medical History and her sensitivity to my concerns. 

It is a beautiful magazine. I found each article to be interesting, thought provoking, and a pleasure to read. Ms Dreger’s About the cover is particularly wonderful and really sets the tone for the issue. 

I wrote to her when it came out that I felt honored to be a part of it, that each piece was a little jewel. She wrote back, “Your beautiful image is really the jewel in the crown. It makes the issue whole.” I hope you all enjoy it. 

Here is the link to read the pdf of Atrium Magazine.

Click here for Northwestern U’s Home Page.

Click here for another article by Alice Dreger: When Medicine Goes Too Far In Pursuit of Normality

Another tattoo post

Posted: December 7, 2013 | Author:  | Filed under: Breast Cancer | Tags:  |Modify: Edit this |Leave a comment »

Inga D Thornell
Photo cover: Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

Robert Hood/Fred Hutch

Here is an article from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Newsletter that focuses on Tina, me and the current trend in mastectomy tattoos.  Yep, it is a trend. We met at her shop and photographer Robert Hood took a few shots of us together. Here is the picture of me. Click the link below to see a picture of Tina with me as the background. One of the other tattooists mentioned, Vyvyn Lazonga, runs the shop where Tina worked when we began our project.

On the News Front, no pun intended

Posted: October 28, 2013 | Author:  | Filed under: Breast Cancer | Tags: , | Modify: Edit this | 2 Comments »

I was on the front page of Well, the tattoo was anyway… I’ve been interviewed for various magazines that are running the mastectomy tattoo angle this year but this is the first article that has a picture besides Tina’s old file copy. Tina and I got together and did a real photo shoot. So this one actually has my face! I am not ashamed to say it took me awhile to get with this… The last time I did any modeling was for the MSNBC documentary in ’94, ya, back before I was 50.

Anyway, writer Diane Mapes did a great job with the article, most of the comments on the story have been positive and I have gotten some beautiful emails from women. I’ve been recognized several times out and around Seattle and people have been really complimentary.

Click here for Diane Mapes Blog

I also had a blog reader send me this entry from Hoax-Slayer. I guess the whole FaceBook photo ban thing has achieved urban myth status.

Click Here for Hoax Slayer

Women choose body art over reconstruction after cancer battle

Posted: August 29, 2013 | Author:  | Filed under: Breast Cancer | Tags: , | Modify: Edit this | 4 Comments »

Did you see this article in the Guardian?

mastectomy tattoo

photograph: Guardian

Of course you didn’t.

You can click the link at the bottom of this post  to read it now because I am mentioned in it, and… they spelled all my names correctly!

That is the Guardian, as in Guardian, UK. Yes, the paper everyone is reading in those British murder mysteries I watch on Netflix.

Interesting, eh?

I never would have heard about it except that I received an interview request from a Seattle publication because of it and she mentioned reading it.

Back in 1993-94, I never thought that this would become a trend but apparently it has.  Here is a quote from the article, ‘Women who have chosen tattoos over reconstruction cite the reclaiming of their bodies as the main reason for the choice. Some women refuse reconstruction because they feel it is a denial of the impact of cancer, both positive and negative, and that a tattoo (often very carefully designed to express the personal nature of the cancer journey) is the exact opposite.’

Click to read the article: Women choose body art over reconstruction after cancer battle

Yesterday Facebook, today,Yahoo, tomorrow… ?

Posted: June 13, 2013 | Author:  | Filed under: Breast CancerNews | Tags: , |Modify: Edit this | Leave a comment »

Facebook Allows Mastectomy Photos: Tattooed Model In Controversial Picture Speaks Out

Now lest I sound ironic, people really need access to a community site for pictures like this. When I was considering the surgery, I would have loved to have been able to see pictures like you all can now.

I just  honestly can’t say I ever considered I’d be the “poster girl” for prophylactic mastectomy, or nudity in the media, or tattoos in the workplace, or whatever direction this is taking this week, it is interesting. Interesting and a little scary.  Anyway…

Click below to read Beth’s article!

Link to Yahoo Article

Facebook posts their new policy on mastectomy photos

Posted: June 12, 2013 | Author:  | Filed under: Breast CancerHealth & FitnessNews | Tags:  | Modify: Edit this | 24 Comments »

Facebook posts their new policy on mastectomy photos which states:

Does Facebook allow post-mastectomy photos?

Yes. We agree that undergoing a mastectomy is a life-changing experience and that sharing photos can help raise awareness about breast cancer and support the men and women facing a diagnosis, undergoing treatment, or living with the scars of cancer. The vast majority of these kinds of photos are compliant with our policies.

They go on to explain why breastfeeding photos are removed from Facebook:

However, photos with fully exposed breasts, particularly if they’re unaffected by surgery, do violate Facebook’s Terms. These policies are based on the same standards which apply to television and print media, and that govern sites with a significant number of young people.

I don’t take any credit here because I admit I really didn’t have any opinion on whether Facebook should or should not allow pictures like mine to be broadcast all over their site. I mean, I can see some justification for protecting ”young people” from images of a frightening disease, really, there could be private boards within Facebook for this sort of thing, couldn’t there? It shows Facebook’s sensitivity to us as users that they are allowing these images to be seen. Who are FB’s customers? The advertisers, right? Do you think they want mastectomy photos gathering shares & likes? I don’t see why they would.

What IS weird though is why FB, is so nervous about breasts. OK, it isn’t weird, they are just using the same criteria that all other US media use but what on earth is wrong with breastfeeding?  In my opinion, breastfeeding should be more visible,  I mean, it is normal, it’s natural! Wouldn’t we all be better, calmer and happier seeing more of that?

Well anyway, now that Facebook has clarified their policy, about half the sites that are reporting on it are using, yup… my photo.

Here is a sample: inquisitr posts new facebook policy

Prophylactic Mastectomy: A Reasonable Option?

Posted: May 20, 2013 | Author:  | Filed under: Breast Cancer | Tags:  | Modify: Edit this | Leave a comment »

Since Angelina Jolie’s news, I’ve seen several points repeated, so I’ll address them:

“She should have waited until she actually had cancer.”

This actually reflects several misunderstandings: of Cancer itself, a confusion between systemic and localized cancer, and a lack of knowledge about mastectomy procedures. She couldn’t have had the surgery she had if she had waited until she had cancer. What she had is a “skin-sparing prophylactic mastectomy” the point of which is to remove as much breast tissue as possible while giving a result that is not obtainable with reconstruction after cancer surgery. Compare the pix below:

Pretty big difference isn’t there? The first looks natural and the second is designed to look natural in clothing. The scars from biopsies and mastectomy really can’t be hidden that easily.

The other problem with actually waiting and relying on so-called early detection is that it assumes that a mastectomy could or should be done at that point when it is not always the best option. Cancers may be local or systemic and just because a cancer is small does not necessarily mean that it was caught early or that it will be easy to treat. A small cancer could be a very aggressive cancer with tendrils reaching into other organs that would need to be treated with radiation, chemotherapy or other treatments and skin that has been scarred and irradiated is not always capable of being stretched over an implant. Essentially, once you have a malignant tumor, you are no longer having a “prophylactic mastectomy” because breast cancer may be in other parts of your body besides your breasts as author Kelli and her sister, Fran, discover in this article, MY SISTER HAD A DOUBLE MASTECTOMY TOO, BUT SHE DIED OF BREAST CANCER ANYWAY.

This is similar to what happened to my mother. For those of you who haven’t read it before, Mom had breast cancer which was treated by lumpectomy and radiation. She had the requisite followups of mammograms and biopsies and when she was diagnosed with metastasized breast cancer in her lungs, liver and spine twenty years later, her breasts were clear of cancer. So if she had a so-called “prophylactic mastectomy” at the first sign of cancer, she would have had the same thing happen.

Obviously “preventive” means before cancer is diagnosed. If you want an approachable but still gratifyingly educational book about cancer, check out The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Here is another absurd yet oft’ repeated statement…

“No ethical doctor would ever remove a perfectly healthy set of testicles from a man who has no symptoms of testicular cancer, so how could a doctor do this?”

Here we have both medical ethics and sexism rolled into one question. The quote brings to mind all the tabloid scandals since the 60s from medically unnecessary hysterectomies, (the so-called Harlem appendectomy) to DES, from C-sections to prophylactic mastectomies… never mind that this time it is the women asking for the procedure. There are a couple of things that really irk me about this statement.

1. Testicles aren’t analogous to breasts, but to ovaries, and as important as these are women do get them removed much more cavalierly than they remove breasts. Breasts actually have little function aside from breastfeeding infants and Jolie and most other women who are in the age group to be considering this procedure have probably already done that.

2. Since cancers affect lungs, pancreases, stomachs, and plenty of organs that can’t be removed preemptively, does that mean that something that can be, shouldn’t be? These women are educated, can generally afford the procedures if not covered by insurance and are making their decisions with their doctors. Is that really different than any other elective procedure?

Bonus round: Right now, neither genetic testing nor prophylactic mastectomy is usually recommended by physicians but if Aetna’s policy posted online here is indicative, prophylactic mastectomy medically necessary for reduction of risk of breast cancerit may be recommended by insurance providers at some point.

I know this is controversial stuff, so please be thoughtful of others feelings when you comment.

Related articles:

  • Here is a link to a Daily Mail article about 4 young UK women who discuss their reasons for having this surgery.
  • Here is a link to an article by a woman who says she delayed having a prophylactic mastectomy and then did get cancer.
  • Skin sparing Mastectomy film on Youtube from Johns Hopkins
  • Click here to read the full article: Fred Hutch

Prophylactic Mastectomy: Angelina, Sharon and Me

Posted: May 14, 2013 | Author:  

Angelina Dunthor

Angelina as Lara Croft

I was engrossed in making a presentation on the Part of Fortune for class this morning and completely missed Angelina Jolie’s announcement that she had had a prophylactic mastectomy until it was brought to my attention by a friend who asked if she could use a quote from me in light of it!

Once I looked the article up, I was thrilled that she had gone ahead with the surgery since I had thought about it back when she’d lost her mother to Ovarian Cancer, a related cancer. What shocked me was reading so many negative comments from people who don’t understand the context of a decision like hers. Sharon Osbourne received the same negative feedback when she made the same decision last year and it just amazes me how cruel and shallow people can be. I guess they are just proof that some people never really make it out of middle-school.

Their situations point up some differences between 1993, when I had my surgery, and 2013. In 1993, the BRCA gene test was new and no one was quite sure what percentage of cases it would account for, so I didn’t even have the test. We mostly discussed family medical histories. I had a traditional mastectomy which removed all breast tissue, leaving large scars. Reconstruction at a later time was offered but I preferred to stick with external prostheses and to cover the scars with tattoos. Angelina chose a skin sparing, immediate reconstruction option which she says left her with only small scars. Her cancer risk is slightly higher than mine but I am sure her results are more aesthetic than mine were pre-ink. Sharon had implants removed and I don’t know if she’s replaced them or not.

I’ll discuss why prophylaxis IS a reasonable way of dealing with cancer in another post, K?

Here is a link to Jolie’s New York Times piece.

And a link to Sharon Osbourne.

Amoena makes external breast prostheses.

FYI: You’re trending on Huffington!

Posted: March 9, 2013 | Author:  | Filed under: Breast Cancer | Tags:  | Modify: Edit this | 2Comments »

Yup, That is the message I got from my friend Simon. He said he was monitoring news stories on the US budget situation and saw my picture on the Huffington Post. It must have been a slow news day! Now that the shock of running into my pictures in odd places is over I am marveling at how positive 99% of the reaction has been to them. Good thing, too. I also have to marvel that all these news companies have had to confront their own policies in order to post or print the pictures. Can’t you just hear the same conversation going on in each conference room, “Is it nudity?” ” No, it is a public service.” or “No, it is art.” and on and on. :)

Dunthor Tattoo
page captured from the Huffington post

The Facebook Controversy, yes and no.

We seem to have stumbled into a full-blown controversy. I feel like I missed most of it but people appear to have been accusing Facebook of censoring the tattoo photo. Russ Bowen of KOMO News 4 contacted me about a censorship issue this morning and I told him that I had not posted the photo nor was I aware of its having been removed.

He did some investigative reporting and called the tattoo shop in Ontario whose Facebook page has been supposedly affected. The shop owner said Facebook has not touched the photo and has assured him it has no intention of doing so. Scott adds: The good news is that Inga and Tina’s work is getting out to more people than ever and is hopefully giving hope to those who need it most. */:-)

later that day: Facebook did remove the photo deciding that it did violate policy

and later that week: Facebook rethought their policy on mastectomy tattoos (see later posts)

My photo on the Custom Tattoo Design’s Facebook page stats as of 5:38 pm 2/20/13:

184,181 others like this.

Here are a few news sources that seem to be reporting directly off the newsfeed. Here is one headline:

“Facebook removes photo of breast cancer survivor’s chest tattoo, picture goes viral” Click to read the UPI article

Here is another:

“Facebook Removes Photo Of Breast Cancer Survivor’s Tattoo, Users Fight Back” Click to read the Huffington Post article

The tattoo broke free again…

Posted: February 11, 2013 | Author:  | Filed under: Breast Cancer | Tags:  | Modify: Edit this | 4 Comments »

When Tina and I designed my mastectomy coverup tattoo, I considered it a personal thing that would be seen by me, Tina, Scott, my surgeon and probably a few women that I would show it to now and then. But when Tina was approached by MSNBC’s Michelle Smawley to be featured in the segment of MSNBC Investigates: Tattooed Women, she said she just knew it had to be about our project.

I am a shy person so it took me a long time to cozy up to the idea but my mother and step-mother’s experiences with breast cancer surgery and especially the feedback from women who had seen my tattoo pushed me to tell the story.

Michelle came out from New York City with her crew and interviewed Tina, my husband and me for hours and once the filming was done, life went back to normal….for about two weeks and then the anxiety started. Would she make us look like ninnies? Had any of us said anything particularly stupid? What were we thinking when we agreed to this? Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I called her in New York and told her that she couldn’t go ahead. I was a nervous wreck and losing weight — the works! She laughed and said she had just gotten off the phone after having the same conversation with Tina.

She reassured me that she had made us a beautiful segment and that every morning the whole production crew crowded into her cubicle to watch it and all left with tears in their eyes. The only consideration they were having to consider was whether my topless images counted as nudity or not and Legal was reviewing that. She sent us a VHS tape of the show when it aired and we were all relieved, if not pleased. She will be my pick if I ever need a producer for a show. Afterwards, we would get calls from family members periodically, “You guys were on TV again” or Scott or I would get recognized at work or in restaurants occasionally. Tina and I were once at a Vince’s restaurant together and we ended up with a boothful of waitresses tearfully telling us how much the show had meant to them — it was wonderful.

But none of that compares to the buzz lately. We were at lunch with friends last week and one of them mentioned getting the pictures sent to him by a friend. Another friend from my knitting group got pics emailed to her from a friend in Australia and the tattoos were also featured on the Bob Rivers’ Show Facebook page with 10,870 likes, 7,923 shares and 1,028 comments, most of which weren’t from weirdos. I am not sure why the buzz goes in waves like this but if it helps more women to feel better about their bodies, then I will try to keep my blushes to myself.

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!

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