My Very Giant Chest Tattoo

Photo Credit: Lirio Drayton, Luna Photography

TL;DR

I got a new tattoo. It’s a full chest tattoo to cover my cancer scars. It’s rainbow phoenix armor. A few years ago, over five now, I had very serious stage-3 breast cancer. I went through chemo and then a bi-lateral mastectomy, where they took both breasts and nipples and the rest of the cancer. I was left with tissue expanders, filled with a little bit of saline, while I underwent six weeks of radiation. I’ve been cancer-free for over five years.

Why did I get this tattoo versus realistic nipple tattoos?

  1. I grew up a tomboy.
  2. I never really learned to love my breasts before cancer.
  3. Roller derby taught me you could change your image to who you wanted to be.
  4. I’m bad at climbing mountains, but want to be good at climbing mountains. Mountains are both figurative and literal.

Click here to see pictures of my full chest tattoo. None appear in this photo essay. Password: phoenix

Is it nudity? Technically no, I don’t have nipples.

Why a password? These are still sensitive photos. And though I am proud of my tattoo, I respect that not everyone will think it appropriate to view them.

Why this very long post? It is a photo essay detailing why I got this tattoo.

Table of Contents

Intro
Part I: The Tomboy Years
Part II: Roller Derby Saved My Soul
Part III: A Tale of Three Mountains
Part IV: Wrapping it all up
Why did I get rainbow phoenix armor?

Nathan’s original design.

Intro

I got a new tattoo. It’s pretty big. I have these arrows and feathers that stick out about an inch below my neck, so you can see that I have a tattoo with almost everything I wear. That wasn’t the original plan. When the artist held the first template up on my chest, the arrows went all the way to my throat. I have a strict policy against myself and neck tattoos, so we shrank it down quite a bit. And still it sticks out further than I had intended.

I love my tattoo, but now almost every conversation starts with my tattoo. It’s a bit awkward because I can tell they want to ask, “how far down does the tattoo go?” When you can just see the hint of a tattoo, it’s natural to want to know more about it. And this curiosity is okay by me, it’s just that I hadn’t foreseen that it means bringing up my experience having cancer every single time. So, I usually lead with, “It’s a full chest tattoo to cover my cancer scars. It’s rainbow phoenix armor.”

Then the conversation veers off a bit.

Does your husband mind?

No, actually he drew the original design for this tattoo.

So, did it hurt?

Yes.

Did it hurt a lot?

So, so much. I began to doubt my sanity. One, two, three, four hours laying there with a needle creating this beautiful piece, left me in agony.

Why a giant chest tattoo? Why not just realistic nipple tattoos to make your body look normal again?

The very short answer is that when I looked at my naked breasts I wanted them to come alive with something magical.

Let me tell you the story of how I got this tattoo. It’s pretty long.

Back to the Table of Contents

Part I: The Tomboy Years

A few years ago, over five now, I had very serious stage-3 breast cancer. I went through chemo and then a bi-lateral mastectomy, where they took both breasts and nipples and the rest of the cancer. I was left with tissue expanders, filled with a little bit of saline, while I underwent six weeks of radiation. After the radiation, my left side was mostly fine, outside of the expander making it feel like I was doing a constant push up for seven months. But my right side was obliterated. Skin raw and wrecked for months. The skin healed tight, like someone with a botched face lift on only one side.

Cancer was supposed to be really hard. There were hard moments, but it went by in a haze and fog. It seemed like no time passed between diagnosis, chemotherapy, my mastectomies, radiation, and finally reconstruction. All of this took only a year and three months. I’d love to write a memoir about my experiences, but I remember so few of them. A great void exists in the cancer years.

The hardest part of cancer has been its aftermath. The losses. I guess to understand my losses, I have to back up deep into my childhood.

I grew up a tomboy.

More than that I wanted to be a boy. Boys had all the fun and none of the worries of being a girl. They got out of chores and dresses. Their games were fun and rough and tumble. Not like the girl games I was sometimes forced to play: house, school, family, princess time. I hated all of that; more than that, I was uncomfortable in those roles. I always played a mischievous boy character who was constantly getting in trouble. To me, these girl games were just made up, but the boys’ games were real. We really threw a ball and caught it. We really skateboarded and fell. We really dared each other in ding-dong doorbell ditch. We really tackled each other and then fought. None of this was pretend grown-up life. Of course, we’d pretend to be Joe Montana to Jerry Rice; somehow that was okay. I was the only girl. I only minded being the only girl when one of the boys would ask, “Are you a girl?” or “That was a pretty good throw, for a girl.” I competed hard: even if I wasn’t the best, I was the last to call a foul or cry out in pain. I never said, “That’s not fair.” Because the second I’d say something like that, boys treat you differently and I just wanted to be accepted as one of the crew.

Yup, that’s me. Photo credit: Jean Pieri, St. Paul Pioneer Press

For two years I played Little League Boy’s baseball as the only girl on my team. There were four of us in the entire league. I mostly rode the bench; I sometimes played second base (my favorite), or in the outfield. I could throw and catch with the best of them. I never really caught on to hitting, but I made it on base frequently getting walked or beating out a grounder. I had short hair and it was before puberty, so unless you knew there was a girl on the other team, you wouldn’t have known a girl was on the other team.

To some people I was shocking. Photo credit: Jean Pieri, St. Paul Pioneer Press

The thing is I don’t know how good I was; my coaches mostly ignored me and certainly didn’t invest in my skill. It wasn’t much of a surprise that when I turned 11, all of the girls were kicked out of the boys’ league. The city only offered slow-pitch softball. It seemed like such a step down. Even the name softball sounds weak. I had a high opinion of myself and a low opinion of the girls who said, “ouch!” every time they caught one of my throws. A boy wouldn’t be caught dead saying that and we always threw our hardest to try and get someone to show their weakness. Us girls were booted from the league because they told us that puberty would change everything for everyone. At that point I remember my brother and cousin making fun of my flat chest, saying my bra was two sunflower seeds and a rubber band. Never mind that that says more about them than me; I remember breasts were an important part of growing up. My potential breasts got me kicked out of little league. My dreams of being a professional baseball player died and I switched to soccer and quit softball. Though I missed competing with boys, thankfully by middle school I’d found a group of feisty soccer girls that helped me find my place.

Puberty and breasts were always a thing of worry. If you got breasts too early, you got too much attention from boys. I didn’t want that kind of attention.

I wanted my fraternal order to remain. I never grew giant breasts. I wore a sports bra to go running, but a regular bra would’ve done fine all the same. I wasn’t so flat chested that I was self-conscious. I grew up in a conservative Christian household that didn’t believe in two-piece bathing suits, let alone a bikini. I was hyper-aware of my body and its potential to be a stumbling block to boys around me. It made me uncomfortable to show off my body.

While I began to embrace some aspects of femininity like wearing subtle makeup and dresses to church, I was much more comfortable in the late 1990s as Sporty Spice. All of this to say, I never embraced my breasts. I wore t-shirts that didn’t show cleavage (not that there was much to show). Even when I went off to college, I maintained my modesty. I wasn’t around girly girls. And if I was, I certainly wasn’t comfortable. Some of my roommates tried to help me, but I always felt as if I was playing a part. The men I dated liked me as I was: smart, funny, and fierce. I got dressed up for dates, but none of this girl stuff came naturally. Finally, when I did fall in love and got married to a real live man, what was I to do with my modesty? How can you cast off decades of learning and living, simply because you took a vow of marriage? Embracing my femininity and sensuality didn’t come naturally. It was a whole new language and way of living. What was considered wrong in my world view before marriage, was now not only allowed, but wholesome: to be sexy. Embrace your body, sexuality – all of it is now good. It should’ve been like a switch turning on, and yet it wasn’t. It took years to develop this comfort.

Becoming a girl of sorts. Photo credit: Jean Pieri, St. Paul Pioneer Press

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Part II: Roller Derby Saved My Soul

Me and my crew. I’m #1492. Photo credit: Phantom Photographics

One day, I saw some roller derby girls dressed up in South Florida. They were these goddesses on wheels, in skirts and torn up tights, with helmets and knee pads. Then I saw the film Whip It. A few months later, I saw an advertisement for a local roller derby match and went. I was in love. Bad ass women smashing and hitting one another with abandon. I loved their derby names filled with violent puns and theatrics. I didn’t understand the rules or much of what went on, but I knew I’d found my people. A few months later, I joined, not knowing how to skate, hit, or any of the rules. None of that seemed to matter. They cared about one thing: will you get back up after you’ve been knocked down? Yes? Then you’re in. I loved this sport so much. Multiple practices a week and required events and charity work on the weekend took up much of my time.

I’d been teaching for about seven years and though I had the best PowerPoints of anyone I knew, there was this deep-seated desire to be known for more than being a teacher. I’m not sure why teaching isn’t enough for me, but it’s not. Roller derby gave me a new identity. Raw and real and deeply connected to that little girl who was kicked out of little league. I was only a derby girl for two and a half years of my life. I was never “good” at roller derby, I just got less bad. Roller derby had a lot of “girl” drama that I could have done without. Some of that drama was played out on the track; you hit harder, cussed more, and showed more badassery than normal. Playing a contact sport with women brought me into proximity with my body. Somebody would elbow my breast; somebody would fall and take down the pack; skate to the crotch; fingers getting rolled over; hip check to a thigh; hip to hip building a wall; somebody pulled my hips to shoot around me. Body on body. And then there was the language: alright, bitches; beaver cleaver; cxxt blocker; come on you mother truckers; listen to my vagina monologue. That’s how I remember it anyway. This was a brand-new world: part middle school, part playground, and so much fun.

I was part of a sisterhood like no other I’ve ever experienced.

That’s me in the green in the middle.

Then my husband and I started talking about having kids. I was over 30 and figured it was time. I knew that once I had kids my roller derby days might be limited, but I could always come back.

That’s when I found the lump in my right breast. In the span of a few weeks numerous dreams died.

We wouldn’t be having kids anytime soon, and I wouldn’t be playing roller derby.

From the moment the doctors started talking about a “suspicious” mass in my breast, I knew things were going to change forever. We were starting chemotherapy right away. I had surgery so they could put in a port to be able to more easily pump me full of the poison that would save my life. You know, it was exciting in a lot of ways. I was receiving so much attention from my school, my church, my roller derby family, my regular family, and even from complete strangers. We were so busy meeting with different doctors that I hardly had time to worry about what we had lost. It was weird when a close friend shared she was pregnant; I was jealous in a way but intrigued at how much of our stories overlapped. Something was growing inside each one of us; she was trying to let hers grow, and we were trying to kill mine. These alien things in our bodies, affecting us in such different ways. We don’t know how long I had been growing my tumor, though it would seem it was very fast growing; but from diagnosis to mastectomy to radiation took about 9 months.

Attitude is everything.

At my bell ringing ceremony after five months of chemo, we had a big party in the hospital waiting room. At the end of my chemo, I got to live, a new life of sorts. Near the end of my friend’s pregnancy, she went into labor very early; six weeks early; she nearly died but gave birth to a 2-pound premature baby. This thing that should have been beautiful for them, nearly turned into a nightmare. The baby was in the NICU for a long time – over a month. But her beautiful boy kept gaining weight, until finally he could fit in the car seat for the short ride home from the hospital. I had trouble keeping track of her story during the midst of my own. But there was this weird overlap of experiences nonetheless.

My bell ringing ceremony.

Just a few weeks after the end of my chemotherapy celebratory bell ringing, I was being prepped for my bi-lateral mastectomy. Both breasts were being removed, though cancer was only found on the right side. It had spread to the lymph nodes and some of those were being removed as well. It wasn’t an easy decision to remove both breasts and nipples. It was one thing to take out the tumor, to kill the cancer, but taking my breasts? This part of my body that had caused me such pain as a child, was doing it again. So much of our cultural femininity is wrapped around the breasts. While biologically, I would still be a woman, some of my femininity would be lost. And I was confused about that. Breasts are inextricably tied to sexuality and sensuality. Sort of God’s gift to our significant others. If I were to get pregnant one day, I would no longer be able to breast feed. There were things to mourn indeed.

Bras, dresses, bathing suits; all made for women with breasts.

You may wonder, why take both breasts? Why the nipples and milk ducts? The nipples and milk ducts could hide cancer. Both breasts versus just the right breast: the plastics doctor thought symmetry was best, the oncologist thought the benign lumps in the left breast and fast growing nature of my cancer on the right side were worrisome, and I thought, “I never ever want to have breast cancer again.” Getting rid of all of the breast cells lowers the chance of recurrence. There were four sets of doctors to make happy with the mastectomies: the breast surgical specialist, the oncologist, the plastic surgeon, and the radiation oncologist. None of them saw eye to eye on all aspects of treatment. We played this balancing act and had all parties defer to the breast surgical specialist, a 4’10” ancient woman with coke bottle glasses.

I started getting nervous before the surgery. Death hadn’t been high on my list of things to think about during cancer treatment. At the hospital, they asked about a living will. I hadn’t thought about dying, but now I was certain that something could go wrong. On my phone, I made sure my baseball cards and journals went to the right homes. I was pretty sure those were the only things I cared about where they went. It was a weird and hurried process. There were other things to consider as well. If something goes wrong, do I want to be kept alive on a ventilator for the rest of my life? No. Well, how long then? A few months, then harvest my organs and cremate the rest and use that to plant a tree.

My most prized possession.

This is a long and roundabout way of sharing how I got my tattoo. I guess when I was first diagnosed, I hoped I’d be back to playing roller derby in a few months, six months max. But at six months, I was still recovering from losing my breasts and starting six weeks of radiation. I was doing physical therapy to begin lifting my arms above my head again. Incredibly painful. The physical therapist doubted I’d be able to play roller derby again because of the lymphedema risk. No one knows exactly how you get lymphedema, but once you get it, it is almost impossible to get rid of. What is it? Painful swelling of the limbs, due to damage in the lymphatic system. Because they removed 20 lymph nodes from my right side, I was always at risk.

Some days we felt pretty great.
But this is mostly how we felt.

These are some of the things that might cause lymphedema:

  • yard work
  • knocks or blows to your body
  • blood pressure cuffs on the affected side
  • blood drawn from the affected side
  • flying on an airplane
  • extreme heat or cold to the affected area
  • tight clothing
  • going barefoot outdoors
  • crossing your legs while sitting

…it goes on and on.

I could control a few things like blood pressure checks and blood draws, but in roller derby the whole point is taking hits and giving hits. At any point, one of those hits could cause lymphedema. I knew I didn’t want that because a woman in Old Navy saw my bald chemo head and pulled me aside and showed me her bloated arm and said, “Never get lymphedema.” She was in so much pain and she said it’d been like that for weeks. Very little is known about lymphedema. Some of the causes sound like old wives’ tales.

My identity as Pirate-i-tude.

I realized that I’d never get back on the track. My roller derby career was over. This is a loss I’ve mourned year after year. For a while, I announced the bouts for our league. But it was painful every time. I just wanted to be on the track. Hitting and getting hit. Falling and getting back up. Less people checked in and I showed up less and less, until it was only through social media that I am connected to something that was a huge part of my identity.

Amen. Photo credit: Phantom Photographics

Time has moved on. A year after my cancer diagnosis, I had a bone density scan for the first time. It isn’t scary or painful, you just lay there, and it checks your body for bone loss. Unfortunately, my scan showed I had osteoporosis, or brittle bones.

Bones of an old woman.

We’re not sure if one of the anti-cancer medications caused my bone loss, or if it is genetic, or a combination. But right away I started on a high calcium diet (kale, kale, and more kale) and taking calcium and a bunch of other vitamins. This was confirmation that I couldn’t go back to roller derby. Can you imagine playing with someone who, if you hit her, her bones will break? People with strong bones break them all the time in roller derby. It is a high contact sport.

While my roller derby days were done, it had forever changed how I see myself: I am Pirate-i-tude and I am part of a forever sisterhood.

One minute you’re all cool.
And in the next, your cape covers your face.

Back to the Table of Contents

Part III: A Tale of Three Mountains

In the spring of 2015, about six months after radiation, a friend let us stay in her cabin outside of Asheville, North Carolina. We did a little bit of hiking. We were near Mount Mitchell, touted as the highest peak east of the Mississippi in North America. I was out of shape, but the trail looked easy enough to the top. It was not. At some point we almost had to go back down the trail. I was crying and felt so helpless. How had I let myself get to this point? I was supposed to be better than this. Stronger than this. And yet I wasn’t. Many people had said to have grace for myself coming off being sick. True enough. But when the effects of that sickness leave you unable to do things you love, then something has got to change.

Near the bottom of the trail to the summit of Mt. Mitchell.

When we got home, I entered a training regimen fit for a montage. I was running three times a week and going to classes at the gym three to five times a week. I got fit. Really fit. Even more in shape that I had been during roller derby. My main motivation was that my recovery from upcoming surgery would be made easier by being in shape.

Not me, but a great training montage.

Seven months after I completed radiation, my body was healed enough for reconstruction. We were using my belly fat to build breasts; the procedure was called a DIEP (deep inferior epigastric perforator artery). It was like a tissue transplant within my own body and it required me to stay in the hospital for nearly a week. It was a glorified tummy tuck and I couldn’t fully stand up without a walker for six weeks. It was a slow recovery. A very slow recovery.

Six weeks with my walker.

If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, make sure to talk about nipple reconstruction. Personally, I didn’t want nipples added back on to my body. I’d spent much of my breast life trying to avoid having hard nips out in public and I certainly didn’t want permanently hard nipples as a part of my new reality. Unfortunately, this was not a conversation I had with the plastics team and they kindly took it upon themselves to give me a perfectly flat tummy, with love handles still intact, in case I ever wanted to use that fat to build nipples.

Nipple reconstruction is a difficult topic. Also, it looks like some Harry Potter magic is involved. Illustration credit: Oprah.com

I had worked so hard to get rid of the chemo body that had settled in the year before. It is a misconception that you lose weight in chemotherapy. Many people (especially women) gain weight because of all the steroids and other medication being injected into our bodies. Not fully standing up for six weeks was hard. I had so many drains in and it was impossible to sleep. This time is a blur. A lot of pain, many tears shed, and everything took so much energy. The thought of ever having surgery again was repulsive. The idea of reusing my love handles to rebuild my nipples laughable at best and sickening at its worst.

Unfortunately the Bridges Conference is cancelled this year due to Covid-19.

The end of the summer was our chance to get out of town and attend a conference that we’d been to nearly every year of our marriage. It was full of wonderful and exciting people from all over the world,  interested in the intersection of math and art: dancers, artists, musicians, mathematicians, jugglers, and other creatives. Often, I felt way out of my league. Not being a mathematician, nor specializing in art, my fears and insecurities could take over. And yet, this community was so welcoming that I began to see myself as both an artist and mathy person. Some of my most creative ideas would come at the conference. This year was special because I finally felt like I was me again. I had hair on my head and my breasts were rebuilt and I was cancer free. Sitting at a little café in Baltimore’s art district, a brilliant idea came about. The conference was to be in Finland the next summer and we wanted to visit family in South Korea. I drew a mini map in my notebook and realized that it would be possible to do both trips if we turned it into one long circumnavacation (pun intended).

The general plan.

This was to be a celebration of 10 years of marriage and 1 ½ years cancer free.

In the meantime, I maintained my high calcium diet, but did very little else to rebuild my body after reconstruction. All of the muscle I’d built was gone and I got lazy. In the months before my reconstruction, I had worked so hard and it was all wiped out by the DIEP. My primary physical activity before cancer was roller derby. Now, nothing. And while I announced roller derby bouts every now and then, I was resigned that I could never go back because of the lymphedema risk and my osteoporosis. Out of all I had to give up because of cancer, roller derby was the most bitter pill. Part of my identity was taken from me. That school year rolled right along, and it was June already and a year after reconstruction and two years out from the beginning of cancer.

Kale smoothie, according to the internet.

We were all geared up to leave for the Midwest on June 16, 2016. Then on June 12, the unthinkable happened. A gunman shot up the Pulse nightclub a few miles from our home; killing 49 and injuring 53. We were shaken. We were all shaken. It felt wrong to leave the grieving city to go on our pilgrimage around the world. But we left anyway and everywhere we stopped people shared our grief. We visited the Midwest, San Francisco, South Korea, Nepal, London, Norway, Finland, Iceland and back home. Two months. Two long months seeing the world by the seat of our pants.

In Nepal, we mostly stayed in Kathmandu, the capital, but for four days we stayed up in a village outside the city. A four-hour car trip that yielded maybe 30 miles; winding through the foothills of the Himalaya, washed out roads, stuck busses, treacherous terrain, until finally we parked the Jeep outside of a tiny café.

Yes, that is people riding on the roof.

We ate a traditional lunch of lentils and rice with our hands, bought some bottled water, put on our packs and headed up the mountain. In Nepal, they don’t consider what we hiked, from 5000-7000 feet, to be a mountain. But being from Florida, it was mountain enough for us. We were so slow going. Our guide said it would be a four to five-hour hike; for a Nepali used to walking these trails in flip flops it would be hour and half to two-hour hike. I hate being weak. Who doesn’t? But somehow I’d assumed this would be easy. No training, no problem. That turned out to be a wrong idea.

The many faces of pain.

The weakness of my body was pronounced by being passed by the same people on the trail having gone up to their destination with heavy deliveries on their backs and going all the way to the beginning and passing us on their way back up again. It was a humbling experience.  But we did make it in about four and half hours to the village. In my head, I had different training montages going of how it would be different the next time I came to Nepal and I’d be able to trek with the best of them.

Filled with rocks.

I don’t know if some of this goes back to being the only girl on the team in Little League. If you were the weak link, you were benched, or even worse, cut from the team. This mindset has been part of much of my adult life, professional life, married life, even derby life. I want to be the strong one people can depend on. I want to be the one leading the pack, not forced to settle at the back. With roller derby, I was never good enough, but people respected my desire and work ethic enough to make me team captain.

I am always trying to prove my worth versus just settling into the fact that I have value inherently because I am human.

Perhaps we all struggle with this, but my cancer journey put this in the forefront of my life experience. Sure, when I had cancer, there was grace because I literally couldn’t do the things that I had been used to doing. I was weak and needed people to be strong around me to take care of us. But being weak after cancer was almost paralyzing.

Once we returned from our trip around the world, I started to realize I was burnt out from teaching politics to 7th graders. Really, I was burned out on trying to make politics palatable in the age of Trump and Clinton. And I just couldn’t do it. Maintaining that tenuous middle ground gave way to Trump-bashing in the classroom. We studied the Constitution every day and I couldn’t listen to a word he said without hearing the Founders rolling over in their graves. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t stop myself from constant critiques. I was devastated by his election. Four years of this? How could I teach this subject that I loved in an era of alternative facts? In this day of rule by tweet? I knew I couldn’t. I started looking for an exit.

I’m over it.

I tried coding. I wasn’t too bad at the easy stuff. I even leveraged my knowledge with my desire to get back in shape and started a site called Fitness Friends. There’d be a new challenge every month: push-ups, sit-ups, planks, yoga, etc. I thought this would hold me accountable. It didn’t. I stuck with it a few months and gave up. The school year neared an end and I knew after 12 years I wouldn’t be going back, but I had no idea what was going to do with my life in retirement.

I know you’re wondering what any of this has to do with my tattoo. And see, I’m not quite sure either, it’s just that I’m external processor and this is my process for figuring out why I do what I do. It takes me a long time to understand my actions, even if I’ve acted very quickly in the moment.

I’m an external processor.

I was supposed to be getting in shape. My summer goal nearly every year of my life. One thing that really bothered me, other than not being able to do roller derby, was my chest scars. Naked, it just looked like there were holes in my chest where my nipples would be. Now I know this is personal, but I hated how it looked. I’d ask my husband, who said I still looked as beautiful as ever. But every time I got out of the shower, I was reminded at what I’d lost and what I still had. And I didn’t like it. A bitter little pill to swallow.

I was happy to have my life, but was I happy with my life?

Despite having had an insane amount of kale every day for two years, my second bone density scan came back and showed I still had osteoporosis. I could have started taking something like Boniva that I’d seen Sally Field advertise for, but there was a massive amount of side effects. We’d just have to keep on taking vitamins and getting calcium in the diet and check back in two more years.

Through all this, time has flown. I’m writing this during the Covid-19 crisis in the Spring of 2020. It’s been over six years since I started chemotherapy. Six years since my last roller derby bout. Six years since my husband touched my actual breasts.

Back to the story.

That fall, I started teaching part time at a home school co-op. I taught my favorite subject, world geography, and stayed far away from politics. I was working in a co-working space on my off days and I was aimless a lot of the time, still looking for my next big thing. As it happens, in 2015, I started researching the lack of racial reconciliation after the Civil War and I was trying to figure out what had gone wrong in the 150 years since the end of the war. I’d read everything I could get a hold of that had to do with slavery and race in America. In 2017, I’d turned my research into a poem of sorts, and I read it to a few friends who said I should put in for the Orlando International Fringe Festival. If I had been teaching full time, I never would have been able to do the Fringe. I don’t know how this plays into my tattoo, but it was a time when I was bold and stepped on stage for a one-woman show to share my truth about a most difficult subject: race in America. To balance out the poetry, half of the show would be stand-up comedy. So to prepare, I started doing open mics in Orlando, and here again, I was one of the only women in a group of men. Mostly young men who had no idea what to do with a thirty-something, married cancer-surviving schoolteacher.

Somebody’s History at the 2018 Orlando International Fringe Festival. Photo Credit: Heriot Prentice

I hated and loved doing stand-up. I hated it because you died to self every time you stepped on stage. I loved it because when the crowd is with you, there’s nothing like that energy. So mostly, I hated it. Telling jokes about racism in America isn’t conventionally funny. Mostly I pointed out historical irony, inconsistencies, and hypocrisy.

But I was bold and brave and on stage. I stepped up to the plate and swung for the fences. People showed up to my one-woman show, and some even liked it and learned from it. I would say I at least hit a single.

Somebody’s History at the 2018 Orlando International Fringe Festival. Photo Credit: Heriot Prentice

That summer (2018) another mountain would change my life. Mt. Mitchell had spurred me to get in shape for reconstruction; Nepal had left me rethinking my entire world. Now it was the second time I was in Norway – halfway up the country, outside of the university town of Trondheim. We stayed with our friends on the side of a fjord in a glorious paradise I can barely describe. In the mornings, we would go and pick cloudberries from a field of ancient mountain trolls. One day our hosts asked us if we wanted to go on a ropes course nearby. I wasn’t exactly sure what “ropes course” meant. I wasn’t too keen on heights, but I hated the idea of staying behind. I reluctantly tagged along. The mountain was called Munkstigen.

So excited for the start of the day. Me on the far right.

The ropes course was steel cable threaded up the side of the mountain cliff and you were to go straight up it. This was not what I’d signed up for. Nathan and I were the youngest by over a decade and I was the worst one by nearly a mile. I was so weak. Later I told people that I’d fallen up a mountain. That’s how it seemed. At one point, I was resting on a relatively flat spot. I’d run out of water and an 8-year-old Norwegian boy in sandals offered me some water and patted me on the head. Our entire group tried to encourage me, to no avail. I vomited from exertion. Cried from exhaustion and frustration.

The struggle is real.

Slowly but surely, I neared the summit. A few friends came back down and helped me to the top, encouraging me with the knowledge that my favorite Norwegian liquor was waiting for me. I felt foolish. I felt disgusted with myself. It had taken me so long and it was such an ugly climb. And yes, I had done it; but it was more by kicking and screaming than anything else. Grit had got me through. At the bottom, I bought the t-shirt and vowed that next time I would own Munkstigen.

All’s well that ends well?

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Part IV: Wrapping it all up

Nothing changed when I got home, except the toenail on my big toe fell off because my shoes were too small climbing the mountain. That October, for our 11th anniversary, we bought running shoes. I was going to start running again.

These shoes are no longer collecting dust.

We were going back to Norway in the summer of 2020. I needed to start training now. I only had a year and half. And yet, the shoes just sat there for months. During Christmas, my brother-in-law had been talking about his gym that he loves to work out in. Different workout classes every day and scaled versions so everyone could participate. I’d heard this was one of the most intense workout regimens around and so on January 2, 2019, I took my first class. Once I get into something, I’m in. Also, on January 2, I sent off an email to a tattoo artist about getting my breasts tattooed.

I’m big about New Year’s Resolutions. And like everybody, I’m bad at keeping them. This year was different. I was coming up on the five-year anniversary from my cancer diagnosis and I was ready to take my life and my body back. I was tired of looking at the empty holes and scars on my chest and I had a big decision to make.

Was I going to try to get my body to look as close as it could to my pre-cancer body?

Or was I going to make a whole new body?

Was I going to get hyper-realistic 3-D nipple tattoos?

Or was I going to have a brand-new creation in place?

The truth was I had never really loved my breasts before cancer.

Was returning them to their original look going to make me love them now?

I really didn’t think so.

But I have loved tattoos forever. I have a few small ones, but what I was dreaming of was massive. A whole chest tattoo. You can google “mastectomy tattoos” and it will show a million amazing creations. Of course, Nathan had to be on board. He was because he helped me design the tattoo of my dreams. I love feathers and rainbows and arrows and armor and the phoenix. And so that’s what we created: rainbow phoenix armor. Rainbows represent a promise that after everything has been destroyed by the flood, redemption will come, and you will not be destroyed by flood again. A phoenix has been destroyed by fire and it is by this fire that the phoenix is reborn from the ashes of its predecessor. These combine to make a plate of leather armor. It protects, it enhances, and it binds everything together. This is the new chest I see.

I love it and every time I see it, I am reminded of how strong I am becoming.

Just the outline.

A tattoo of this size took just over 20 hours, broken up into seven different sessions. It was another birth cycle of nine months. I would lay back and grip my hacky sack and try and enjoy the agony. My tattoo artist took my ideas and Nathan’s drawing and turned it into a thing of beauty. Delicate line work of the outline took over 3 hours. My body was done for the day. Blood oozing, plasma coming to the surface. My body exhausted and so was my brain. In another session, a few months later, part of the color was filled in. Reds and blues, yellow and greens, and purple and such vibrancy. A few months later, she started on the leather armor. This was the most painful part along the ribs, colored dull browns to make it look realistic. Hours of excruciating pain and wonderful conversation. Every few months, the agony, the conversation, and me questioning my sanity.

Was cancer even as painful as this? Was this tattoo worth the pain?

The beginning of color.

All this time, I stuck with my New Year’s workout regimen: three to four days per week at the gym. I was the worst in every class. The slowest finisher, the weakest lifter, the lowest jumper. I hated it and yet I kept showing up. It had been five years since cancer ate me up and spit me out and I wasn’t going to have any more of it. In fact, I started to get a crazy idea. Maybe I could go back to roller derby. I hadn’t announced bouts in years, but I was still social media friends with many people and knew that in January a new round of recruits would be starting. I was positive that my osteoporosis was fixed. It had been four years of eating kale and taking vitamins. I was doing weight-bearing exercise all the time. No one knew for sure what caused lymphedema and so I wasn’t going to worry about it. My bone density scan was coming up and I started training harder and harder. I was a new me: though I wasn’t losing weight, I knew I was fitter; though my tattoo wasn’t done, it still looked bad ass; though I still went to therapy every week, I was finally journaling every day; I was stepping up as a wife; I was getting the hang of my new job. I was going to go back to roller derby. I bought new knee pads, cleaned my skates, oiled my wheels, and started to train.

August came and I had my scan. I was devastated that I had shown little improvement. I still had full-blown osteoporosis. Roller derby was not part of my immediate future. I didn’t let this stop me from my gym training, though I haven’t put on my skates in six months. January 2020 came and so did a new challenge, one put out by my gym. Do you want to change your body? Yes. I’d been going to this gym for a year and had lost zero weight and none of my pants fit that much better than they had before. It was incredibly frustrating.

You jump on it. I started at a 12-inch box and now I can jump on a 20-inch box.

This was more than a BMI and weight loss challenge; there were weekly fitness challenges (planking, box jumps, running, etc.), showing up at the gym, and dietary tracking of my macros (fats, proteins, carbohydrates). It was to last for two months. Once I get something in my head, I can pretty much stick to it. I stopped drinking, my carbs stopped being chips and became a bag of spinach, yes, a whole bag. I was hungry the whole time, but there was $1000 on the line. It had been a $25 buy-in and 40 people bought in. As the two months passed, my pants fit better. I was one of the only ones to complete all eight weekly challenges. I came in fourth. I was bummed not to get $1000, but I lost weight, my BMI went down, and all my momentum was headed in the right direction.

Miss Heidi doing her magic.

And then, the coronavirus struck. My gym closed and moved to online workouts. So, I dusted off my anniversary running shoes and started running for the first time in five years. Interval training from one minute at a time in the first week, to 35 minutes straight by the eighth week. I’m in a good place. I’m doing online gym workouts three to four times a week from home and running three times a week. My tattoo has been done since January and my body is changing into what I want it to be. I won’t be going to conquer Munkstigen this summer, but I’ll make it back some day. My next bone density scan is in August of 2021. I’m not holding my breath about roller derby, but I will get back some day. I will continue to work on my bones, my skating, and my fitness.

I will continue to rise from the ashes left by cancer.

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Why did I get rainbow phoenix armor?

So I could show it to the world and have them know that really hard things will happen to you, but if you put your mind to it and have the support around you, you won’t be destroyed by it and in fact it might even make you more of who you want to be.

Photo Credit: Lirio Drayton, Luna Photography

Click here to see pictures of my full chest tattoo.
Password: phoenix