Mastectomy tattoos: transforming perceptions of self

Date

2022-05-02

Authors

Reid-de Jong, Victoria

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Abstract

Thousands of women in Canada continue to be diagnosed every year with breast cancer, many undergoing surgical mastectomy as part of their treatment to eradicate or control the spread of disease. At present, the recommendation for breast conserving surgery (BCS) and breast reconstruction dominates discourse in oncological settings, limiting conversations about alternative options for women to consider following the removal of their breast(s). Interesting however is the decision, made by some women in contemporary society, to undertake unconventional practices such as being inscribed with tattoos where breasts once occupied space. Unfortunately, little is known about the experiences of women who have foregone reconstructive surgery and chose to be tattooed post mastectomy. A Gadamerian philosophical hermeneutic approach was used to explore the phenomenon of being tattooed post mastectomy. Six women with mastectomy tattoos were interviewed to learn about the experiences of being tattooed where breast(s) once occupied space. Participants in this study were between 48 and 65 years of age and tattooed from one month to five years after surgery. Meanings about being tattooed post mastectomy surfaced through conversation and photographs. Gadamer’s hermeneutic teachings were engaged to analyze women’s thoughts, feelings, and photographed images of participant tattoos, surfacing meaning about being tattooed where breasts once existed. To establish a passage for understanding, three publishable manuscripts constitute the body of the dissertation. The first manuscript presents my personal narrative [in part] of being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing a mastectomy without reconstruction. In the second manuscript, the socio-cultural context of why the mastectomized female body is considered abject in contemporary society is examined. Further, I explore how a mastectomy tattoo may be an emerging alternative for some women following the loss of their breasts(s). In the third manuscript the key interpretive discoveries through hermeneutic analysis of interviews and photographs are presented and include: (1) Feeling sad and damaged post mastectomy (2) Reclaiming self: Taking back power and control; and (3) Transformation: Embodying the tattoo as a novel representation of self. These interpretive findings suggest aesthetic options such as tattooing embolden participants to reclaim power and control lost to cancer and transformed their self perceptions of beauty, femininity, and sexual identity post mastectomy. This dissertation contributes to women’s health, specifically within the field of oncology by offering what I understand to be the first phenomenological study interpreting lived experiences of being tattooed post mastectomy. Understanding how women may feel sad and damaged following surgery opens avenues for empathetic questioning and therapeutic supports from nurses. Sharing experiences of women who found the process of designing and being tattooed transformational and empowering may introduce new options post mastectomy that include aesthetics and beauty. Gaining insight into this unique phenomenon can help make meaning about how aesthetic options such as tattooing can empower some women who may be searching for alternatives to breast reconstruction post mastectomy. Furthermore, challenging dominant discourses specific to how women’s bodies should look can create spaces for discursive conversations and optimistically expand options beyond those currently offered post mastectomy.

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Keywords

Mastectomy Tattoos, Gadamers' Philosophical Hermeneutics, Breast Cancer

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