Following her diagnosis back in 2008, Sue Cook underwent chemotherapy, a single mastectomy, radiotherapy and, later, a second preventative mastectomy.
She was left with scarring across her chest, but decided against reconstructive surgery because she didn’t want to put her body through any more trauma.
When she was told she had been in remission for five years, Cook, now 62, decided to celebrate by booking in to have a stunning mastectomy tattoo inked onto her body, covering her chest and shoulders.
“Now, every morning I can wake up to see a beautiful piece of body art. I am my very own walking canvas,” she told The Huffington Post UK
“My body has been through enough and now it’s time to celebrate the new me. My tattoo celebrates my victory over cancer.”
Cook, who is the chief examiner for Foundation Art and Design, University of the Arts, London, was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2008 after noticing a change in the shape of her right breast.
“It felt like there was a little piece of knotted string below the surface of my breast,” she explained. “So I made an appointment with my GP.
“On the morning I was due to see the doctor, my right breast had swollen and caved in. In fact it looked like dough when you hit it with a rolling pin.”
The diagnosis process was swift and Cook was told she had an aggressive form of inflammatory, locally-advanced breast cancer.
“I went home to tell my husband and didn’t go into work the rest of that day. Instead we went out and ate cake,” she said.
Cook was told she would need to begin a six-month course of chemotherapy to shrink the tumours, followed by a radical mastectomy, where the breast tissue, muscle and lymph nodes are removed.
After that, she underwent a course of radiotherapy every weekday for five weeks.
In 2010 she had her left breast removed to reduce the risk of her cancer returning.
Cook said the mastectomy process as a whole is “quite brutal” and can result in women feeling “less feminine”.
“Before cancer I was a D cup,” she said. “To go from that to no cup at all can be quite a shock.
“I remember I was joking with one doctor and he said, ‘yes, it looks like it’s been done with a knife and fork!’
“Like any other amputation, it can be seen as disfiguring. But I decided that I didn’t want to put my body (or mind) through an extensive process of reconstruction.
“I didn’t want to deny the impact that cancer has had on me, nor did I want to rearrange any other parts of my body.”
Instead, Cook began to contemplate having a mastectomy tattoo to transform her scars into art. She decided that to celebrate five years in remission, she would get inked.
“It had always been my choice not to wear prostheses and it was also my choice not to have reconstruction,” she explained. “So after reaching my unexpected five-year remission I began reclaiming my body to show that cancer doesn’t always have to leave the last mark.”
Cook’s tattoo design was inspired by her travels to India with her students.
“I loved the artwork, particularly Mandalas,” she said. “I wanted to almost recreate the feeling I used to get when I wore beautiful lace underwear. Many women will be able to relate to that feeling, it gives a boost of confidence – it’s like a hidden secret, an inner smile.
“I found a pattern that I loved and then adapted it to suit my chest size and scarring.
“Although it began as only a chest piece I loved it so much that I wanted to extend it onto my shoulders, so I could choose to show as much or as little as I liked.”
The tattoo took 30 hours to complete in total and didn’t hurt as much as Cook anticipated.
“I seemed to be able to zone out and, of course, I had something to look forward to at the end,” she said. “Each session gave me a greater sense of how I would feel when it was completed.”
For Cook, having the tattoo has been a symbol of regaining control of her body and, most importantly, surviving a deadly disease.
“It is a thing of beauty and every morning when I see it – it’s like it’s for the first time – it puts a smile on my face. And because those who know me well know I can be a bit of a control freak, it has also helped me to take back control,” she said.
“During treatment you are told what to do, where to go, when to be still, to breathe in, what to take… The list goes on. But this is me making a decision for myself about my body. It is empowering and gives me a feeling of strength.”
Cook is hosting an auction, ‘Curating For A Cure’, to raise money for Cancer Research UK. Find out more about the event here.