30/01/2017 15:50 GMT

Single Mum Gets Tattoo To Cover Breast Cancer Scars, Then Falls In Love With The Artist

'When you have had cancer you take life by the horns.'

When Nina Cristinacce chose to have a tattoo to cover her mastectomy scars, it was her way of embracing the future and leaving the pain of breast cancer behind.

Little did she know that the trip to the tattoo shop would also lead to love.

The single mum entrusted artist Shane Sunday to complete the floral tattoo, which stretches from her thigh, across her ribs and back, then up to her reconstructed left breast.

The piece took multiple sessions to complete over several months and the pair soon struck up a bond. 

They’re now in a happy relationship and Shane has moved in with Nina and her three children.

Cancer Research UK
Shane and Nina.

Former chef Nina was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 37.

She first realised something may be wrong with her health when she discovered a lump while in the shower.

“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, first of all I was numb,” she said.

“And then I went through probably every emotion under the sun: fear, anger, just everything.”

Shortly after diagnosis she had a mastectomy and several rounds of chemotherapy, followed by immediate reconstructive surgery on her left breast using tissue from her back.

Despite the surgery, Nina’s left breast is still smaller than the healthy right one - something she used to feel self-conscious about. 

“A logical thought was to tattoo the parts of my body I didn’t like to look at, and Shane developed the idea of sunflowers and poppies running up one side from my thigh, over my ribs, up to my reconstructed breast and spilling over onto my back,” she said.

“What I didn’t bargain for was falling in love with the tattoo artist who made the design for me, but when you have had cancer you take life by the horns. 

“We started dating six months after we first met, and a year later, Shane moved in with me and my children.”

Mark McGrogan
Nina's tattoo, as deigned by Shane. 

When Nina was first diagnosed with cancer she had to juggle treatment with looking after three young children: Emma, then eight, Ryan, seven, and Alex, five.

She said it was friends and family that helped her get through the difficult time.

“During my fifth cycle of chemo I actually tried to take the needle out because I just couldn’t bear to go on with it, but my best friend Ali was with me and talked me round to just keeping going,” she said.

“Having her with me every step of the way made a massive difference. She would always see me through the fear, pick me up and put me back together again, be with me through the what ifs.”

Cancer Research UK
Nina with Shane's son, Cash. 

Although chemotherapy was necessary to help Nina beat cancer, the treatment left her unable to function for days at a time. 

“I was only able to function normally for two to three days after a dose before five or six days of not being able to do anything. I couldn’t eat, my mouth was so sore, I had ulcers and couldn’t bear anyone touching me,” she explained.

“That was so hard for the children; wanting to give me a hug, but it hurt so much. I was a single mother at that time, but their dad and my best friend helped look after them, and other friends rallied round wonderfully, leaving food on the doorstep or doing my washing for me.”

Nina was left feeling self-conscious as a result of her scarring, but when her father died from cancer she decided it was time to change her outlook.

She wanted to embrace life so booked her first consultation with Shane in 2013.

Cancer Research UK
Nina with her 'cancer squad'.

At the time, the tattoo artist was still married, but as the pair become closer he revealed his marriage was ending.

Nina and Shane’s relationship blossomed and the couple has now opened a tattoo shop together - Alternative Ink in Belfast.  

She is sharing her story ahead of World Cancer Day, which encourages the public to show unity in the face of cancer.

To mark the occasion, the mum and her “cancer squad” -  comprising of her partner Shane and his young son Cash, her children, Emma, Alex and Ryan and her best friend Alison  - have planted flowers at Nina’s children’s school garden.

The flowers are designed to be similar to those Nina has tattooed to cover her scars, celebrating her survival against cancer.

“Cancer has changed me completely as a person; I used to have quite low self-esteem, but I am far more confident now and have a far more positive outlook on life,” she said.

“Now I feel people will like me or not like me, and that I can do anything I want to.  These are things I try to teach my children too.”

Nina is supporting World Cancer Day 2017. On 4 February, World Cancer Day, wear a Unity Band or donate Right Now to play your part in one incredible #ActOfUnity to beat cancersooner. The CancerResearchUK Unity Band will be available online and in CancerResearchUK shops for a suggested donation of £2. Join the #ActOfUnity Right Now at

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