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Tatted. Stained. Badass.

I don’t look like a Bad Ass. I look more like a librarian. English teacher. PTO mom. It’s not on purpose; I just have that look. But I’m here to tell you that I’m stained and tatted.

Most women I know who are only a few years younger than I am have at least one. A few older friends do, too, but it’s rare and usually costs a glass of chardonnay to hear the story. Tattoos are popular, but I missed their rise to prominence. Getting one is nothing I planned, but seven? Impossible.

But tattoos are part of the chain of miracles that saved my life.

After my breast cancer diagnosis, I entered a world of medical innovation I didn’t realize was out there, and training myself to marvel at it is one of my coping mechanisms. I’ve held babies in dirt shacks in Central America, shopped for spices in the souks of Morocco, and slept on beaches in the south of France. Even when I could barely afford to feed myself, I’ve indulged in the lure of faraway places. When cancer put this passion on hold, I decided to look at the medical vortex as my new version of foreign travel. One of my first alien journeys was a date with a bone scan machine, a temple of human imagination. It’s as much a marvel as any temple I explored in Tikal or the jungles of Quintana Roo. Whoever invented the bone scanner must have had an erector set as a kid.

Another curious experience involved getting a stain under my skin. That was my first tattoo, and it’s already gone. I got it because, by the time my cancer was discovered, it had already spread. As part of a study, a smart woman in a lab coat – one of those people who probably wasn’t playing frisbee during finals week – injected my troublesome node with ink to mark a spot surgeons would need to find later. She explained that during treatment, cells might change. Chemo, for example, could shrink cancerous cells, and shifting could make it hard for surgeons to identify which areas to remove. To address this issue, technicians typically insert clips inside patients that later act as guideposts. The problem is that those clips can move, too.

So, some smart person, probably a Bad Ass like me, realized that using ink to identify those spots would solve the problem. Hence my first tattoo, a tiny stain that was ultimately removed.

Later, I got seven more tatts. Unlike my first one, they’re are on top of my skin, and if you look closely, you can see them, although you might mistake them for a freckle. The size of a pin prick, these tiny marks guided radiation technicians after surgery.

Radiation was like foreign travel too. A long-armed machine and light beams lined up with my seven remaining tatts, and while it whirred and clicked over my body, I visualized it zapping cancer away. Daily radiation was my chance to indulge in meditation. It was a strange mix of absolute privacy and a consummate invasion of privacy. My doc and an army of technicians were my travel gurus for this part of my journey.

If I look hard, I can still see my seven tattoos on my snow white flesh, and they remind me of my journey. They remind me of the people who saved my life, who gave my husband his wife back and kept a little girl from losing her mom. They remind me to treasure that gift, to use it well. And, of course, they are the physical manifestation of what I already knew. That I’m a Bad Ass.

Really, we all are.


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