This is a guest post by Liberty Barnes, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in sociology at the University of Oregon. She is the award-winning author of Conceiving Masculinity: Male Infertility, Medicine, and Identity and is currently working on her second book, Pediatric Medicine: A Modern Love Story.
I got my first tattoos at the age of forty-one: three tiny, distinct blue dots not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. There is one punctuation mark in 12-point font in the center of my chest and two slightly smaller polka dots on each side of my rib cage.
The pin pricks in my sides were easy, nothing more than light pokes. But I let out an audible yelp when they injected the needle into the taut layer of skin over my sternum. The area was pink and irritated all day, jogging memories of getting my ears pierced in the third grade and learning that scratching only makes it worse.
Whereas most people go to a tattoo artist to get inked, my tattoos were placed by radiologic technologists while I was lying on an MRI table in preparation for radiation therapy. Like the navigational power of Orion’s Belt, this constellation of three sapphire stars would guide the technologists as they aligned my body under the beams of the radiation machine every morning, Monday through Friday, for six weeks.
I had a good run with cancer, if one can say that. My story is not particularly compelling: Routine mammogram. Repeat mammogram. Ultrasound. Biopsy. Diagnosis. MRI. Genetic testing. Surgery. Radiation. Medication. Everything went smoothly, according to plan. No surprises. Clean margins and clear lymph nodes. I got to keep my hair and my boobs.
Several wise women told me along the way, “Every woman’s experience with breast cancer is unique. You can’t compare them.” No two people are alike. No two tumors are alike. And so, our treatment protocols, bodily responses, healing time, and energy levels vary. Our medical experiences amid differing life circumstances also impact our mental and emotional health in various ways, too.
I was often the youngest patient in the waiting room, even younger than some patients’ adult children who were accompanying them to their appointments. When I told my kids that I had breast cancer, my six-year-old son cried out, “But you’re my mom!” Did middle-aged children shout those words at their septuagenarian mothers? Did those moms feel the same pang of guilt in that moment that I did?
Finding Help at OHSU
When I first heard my cancer diagnosis, I felt like I was free-falling in space, straining for a lifeline, something to cling to before I hit the unforgiving ground. When I arrived at OHSU, I was no longer plummeting to Earth at accelerating speed. All at once, a parachute bloomed above me, the slack in the cords caught and I bounced mid-air. I slowly drifted earthward, where a team of intelligent and skilled women were ready to catch me.
My initial mammogram was done at a private center, not affiliated with OHSU. In the weeks that followed my diagnosis, I was referred to a breast surgeon on one side of town and a medical oncologist on the other. I was fielding phone calls from medical offices, imaging centers, and laboratories all over town. It seemed that my specialists were not communicating with each other and I was struggling to get straight answers about my condition and a clear course of action. I felt the crushing weight of responsibility to learn and know everything about cancer, so that I could make the right medical decisions and manage my own care. The noise of a million swirling thoughts kept me up at night.
Then I decided to seek a second opinion at the OHSU Comprehensive Breast Cancer Clinic. Before I arrived, a team of specialists discussed my case at a tumor board meeting. They reviewed my medical records, imaging, and lab reports, and came up with a treatment plan together. Following the model of precision medicine, the treatment plan they proposed was customized for me based on the type and size of my tumor, my genetic test results, and my age.
My first day at the clinic I met with three different specialists: a surgeon, medical oncologist, and radiation oncologist. (If reconstruction had been necessary, I would have met with a plastic surgeon, too.) Each explained her area of expertise, why the proposed treatment plan was the most promising path for me, and took time to answer my questions.
Feeling Peace and Hope
Once I had a treatment plan that I felt confident about, I could focus on my mental well-being. Though I maintained a positive outlook throughout my experience, I couldn’t help feeling preoccupied. A cancer diagnosis feels as if you have an extra app downloading in the background at all times, occupying bandwidth or what I call “brainspace.” With less brainspace available, my supermom powers of multi-tasking were shot; attending to basic tasks required more focused effort than usual.
Thankfully, in addition to my medical specialists, I also met with a clinical psychologist at the OHSU Comprehensive Breast Cancer Clinic. I had three wonderful therapy sessions with her while I was undergoing treatment. I confided in her my complicated feelings of gratitude, fear, relief, and guilt.
“Am I crazy?” I would ask her at each appointment.
“Nope,” she would assure me. “You’re completely normal.”
It has been over three months since I completed my radiation treatments. My surgical scars have nearly vanished, the skin discoloration from radiation has faded, and I rarely notice my tattoos. On days when I am feeling particularly self-conscious, I resolve to get the blue freckles removed. On other days, when I feel strong and brave, I want my beauty marks elaborated into something larger, striking and beautiful.
My tattoos remind me of Hilary and Linea, the compassionate radiologic technologists who administered my daily doses of radiation from May to mid-June. Over the course of those weeks, we talked about our favorite Netflix binges, the best restaurants in Portland, dream vacation destinations, and our families and jobs.
“Was it weird having to learn to do tattoos as part of your professional training?” I asked Linea one day, as I hoisted myself onto the table for the twenty-somethingth time in the dim light of the radiation room.
“I always say that when they find a better cure for cancer and I’m out of a job, I’ll become a tattoo artist,” she replied with a nod of sincerity. Then she lined up the beams to the sapphire stars, locked the machine into place, and tucked me in with warm blankets.