The tattoo artist helping breast cancer survivors to reclaim their sexuality and process their trauma –

Posted in Tattoo Training on Oct 08, 2021

Ive had a lot of clients compare this place to a spa, Aisling Mahon says of her Newbridge tattoo parlour, and theyre definitely not wrong. With its muted pastel tones, array of houseplants and ornate mirrors, Mahon has created a welcoming, calming and private environment thats a far cry from a typical tattoo shop.

ahon originally did an apprenticeship in one of those traditional tattoo parlours in north Dublin. She greatly enjoyed the experience, but knew that if she ever went out on her own, as was always her dream, things would be different. It was your typical studio: male-orientated, cluttered art works on the wall, and it could be a little intimidating. It wasnt what I wanted to do with my space, she says.

A serene atmosphere is important to Mahon for a number of reasons. A growing number of her clients have never had a tattoo done before; some think of themselves as people who wouldnt ordinarily get tattoos. Mahon specialises in working with women who have undergone breast cancer treatment and mastectomies. They request areola restorative tattooing and/or decorative mastectomy tattooing. Mahon does around two mastectomy or areola tattoos a week. Demand for the service is high Mahon is already booked up until the end of the year (she has a private room to do the mastectomy and restorative tattooing, separate to the floor where the general tattooing takes place).

Its a specialism that almost came about by accident. Some years ago, Mahon remembers a number of clients requesting bodywork to cover up self-harm scars. The process was more gratifying than she could have ever anticipated. I wanted to give a little something back and do something good with my work, so every month, I would do a free scar cover-up tattoo for free, Mahon recalls. It gained a lot of attention, which was overwhelming, and I soon became known for the scar cover work.

One client asked Mahon whether she could work on a mastectomy scar, something that the artist notes was a light-bulb moment. She loved how purposeful and healing the work was, both for her and the client.

By the end of the session, [the first client] had a glimmer in her eye, and I remember thinking, wow, Im really impacting someones life here, Mahon recalls.

Duly inspired, Mahon found a specialist course in Calgary, Canada. Stacie-Rae Weir created the worlds first system for tattoo practitioners to achieve artful, 3D nipple tattooing for breast cancer survivors. Participants on the course must have a minimum of five years scar tattoo experience. Creating hyper-realistic areola is a large part of this particular type of training. Since 2018, after completing the training, Aisling has been a member of a global collective of tattoo artists who specialise in ART (Artistic & Areola Restorative Tattooing).

We got pictures of our own breasts, and from our families, and we replicated them on paper and pencil, recalls Mahon. When we got good enough, we replicated on fake skin in the shape of a breast. Working with clients, I can match the tattoo to an existing nipple so that theres a nice, natural look of balance. For the ladies who have had a double mastectomy, they might have some pictures from before the procedure, which we can work off. Occasionally I work with the client to design a piece where the shape, size and colour are customised.

Others prefer to get a decorative tattoo to either hide or celebrate their mastectomy scars. Some clients want to have input on this, and might have a specific flower or design in mind, Mahon explains.

There are so many elements to consider, Mahon reflects. This is scar tissue, and skin has often been subjected to radiation, so you can only spend about 20 minutes working on the skin. Any longer and youre overworking the skin, and you dont want to cause further damage.

Creating a realistic areola/nipple and working on scar tissue is one thing; quite another is working alongside clients who have undergone a significant trauma. Its a twofold process whereby women reclaim their bodies and their femininity, but also process the trauma of their diagnosis.

Its a huge part of the job, and it was very intimidating, Mahon admits. I havent been through [cancer] personally, so I felt a bit inexperienced and didnt know how to speak about it, but its not my story. You have to be really careful; you dont want to upset someone more. I did further training in trauma coaching, which means that I can help a client and coach them through the trauma.

I just make sure to listen, thats the most important thing, Mahon adds. Their emotions are held in a safe space here. Some women wont talk about the experience at all, but I let them have that space. We talk through breathwork, and that can help to release emotions. If they just want the tattoo, thats fine; they can go home and process everything. I always tell them that weve been doing work on an area that holds genuine trauma, and that they might get home and feel a bit teary. I tell them to try and let that happen. Have a glass of wine if needs be.

Theres a lot of crying in this room this is often pretty transformative stuff for them, Mahon notes. Some are reclaiming their sexuality. Others are excited about going back into dating. For the first time in a while, they are looking at something beautiful on their body.

Cork native Jennifer Foran-Smyth was diagnosed with DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ, which means the cells that line the milk ducts of the breast have become cancerous, but they have not spread into surrounding breast tissue) in 2019, and underwent a full mastectomy in November of that year.

Without sounding soppy, the tattoo which covers the scarring turns a painful memory into something beautiful, Foran-Smyth notes of her lily tattoo. Aisling was covering something I had negative connotations with, and moves you on into a more positive place.

Once her cancer team removed Foran-Smyths breast, they then found a 1.2cm tumour, which changed the scenario entirely. She underwent chemo, finishing her 12-week course four days before the first Covid lockdown started.

For the first few weeks, youre just going through the motion, to the next test, the next scan, the next round of chemo, she reflects. The healing definitely happens afterwards. It all only hits you afterwards. Oddly, people tend to drift away, thinking that once youve finished the chemo, its all grand. But youre living with it still. Im in a hormone treatment to prevent recurrence. You end up living in a situation where youre trying to keep it away.

Mahons bodywork has been integral to Foran-Smyths healing. You still go through the fear of the cancer coming back. But I love the way that it looks. If someone asks to see my tattoo, I show it to them. If someone had asked if they could see my scarring, it would have been a very different scenario.

This complex relationship with the post-surgery body is certainly something that Cork native Ciara McKenna (42) can also relate to. After two lumpectomies and a mastectomy, McKennas radiation treatment course meant that she couldnt have reconstructive surgery straight away.

If I ever caught my reflection in the mirror, I would turn away, she recalls. I hated it. It was like that for years.

Breast cancer affects more than 3,000 women and around 25 men each year in Ireland, according to the Irish Cancer Society. According to the HSE, its the most common type of cancer in women, after skin cancer. Most women diagnosed are over 50, but it can also be diagnosed at a younger age (Mahons client base ranges in age from thirty-somethings to septuagenarians).

At 37, and when her son Ross was only eight months old, she went to the GP to investigate what she thought might be a breastfeeding-related duct issue.

Fortunately [the team there] were very proactive and sent me in for a mammogram, she recalls. I was told it was probably nothing on the day, so when I got a call to say the doctor wanted to see me in the hospital, my world came crashing down around me. I had a tiny baby at home at that stage and didnt know what was in store for me.

After McKennas diagnosis, her initial reaction to the prospect of surgery was what her doctor described as a normal one. I was just like, get them both off. I wanted to get rid of both breasts, she recalls. As it turned out, when they took it all off [via the mastectomy], the pre-cancerous cells were in my whole breast.

I suppose, to this day, I will never forget seeing the scar for the first time, McKenna continues. Very naively, I didnt think I would be left with that kind of scar. When I got the bandages removed, the nurse told me to prepare myself, and I remember thinking, wow, why would I? I got a turn in my stomach seeing how extensive the scarring was.

After her mastectomy, McKenna underwent further procedures two years later. Firstly, a tissue expander primed the breast for reconstructive surgery, and then a latissimus dorsi flap procedure was undertaken, whereby a muscle in the back called the latissimus dorsi, along with skin, fat, and blood vessels, is moved from the back to the chest to form a new breast mound or to form a pocket for a breast implant.

McKenna heard about Aislings specialism on the radio, and after researching her options, opted to get a delicate lotus tattoo on her reconstructed breast.

Her tattoos are not the harsher, dark ones; theyre very delicate, McKenna explains. There was something about the opening up of a lotus flower that I liked visually.

Ive shown it to so many people I never showed my mastectomy scar to anyone. I remember going back into the hospital recently for a minor surgery and the doctor asked if he could have a look. He was amazed by it and asked some of his team to have a look at it too. For the first time in a long time, I didnt mind them all there looking at me.

Myra Hanrahan (58), from Rathfarnham, had a similarly transformative experience after she decided to get a decorative fuchsia tattoo alongside areola restoration.

When Im getting dressed and I see myself, I just feel whole again, she says. It really is just me. One of my sons was out with me one night and he told me, Im so happy you did this. Your paddlers (Plurabelle Paddlers, a breast cancer dragon boat club based in Grand Canal Wharf) did wonders for you, but your tattoo artist did magic.

Hanrahan got her diagnosis in December 2015 after a BreastCheck appointment. I think I knew the minute I was told I was getting a biopsy [that I would be diagnosed with breast cancer], she recalls. I just knew by their expressions, although they were absolutely lovely on the team at BreastCheck in St Vincents. And once it happened, I fell apart.

Cancer, alas, runs in Hanrahan family: two of her four children survived Hodgkins lymphoma as youngsters. My first thought was that I cannot hurt my children. All I thought was, I cant be sick. I have to support these children. But then, being my family, they have a horrendous sense of humour. That Christmas, there were plenty of jokes and laughing and slagging. Sitting around the dinner table, we mentioned that we had the cancer club at one end. Then, when it came to surgery, we also had a goodbye boob party.

Hanrahan underwent reconstructive surgery at the same time as her mastectomy. I had something there, so psychologically, that was amazing, she recalls. There was a scar going across the middle of the breast, and it was only when I went to Aislings studio that I realised Id never really looked at it. For all my joking and being blas, I had avoided looking at it. Id hidden it from myself, and I have actually treated my body very differently because of all this.

The experience of getting the tattoo itself wasnt as she expected, not least the coaching session that she did alongside Mahon.

I tend to avoid letting things get to me, she admits. If I do, I have this idea that Ill fall through the cracks in the floorboards. But coming up to the five-year mark [of being cancer-free], I could allow myself to move forward and not stay stuck in that time warp. One evening, Aisling asked me to write all about the time of diagnosis. And as I was writing it, I was getting emotional. I finally had to face things. But I realised I hadnt fallen through the cracks in the floorboards.

Follow Aisling Mahon on Instagram at @aislingmahontattoo, or contact her for a consultation via her website

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The tattoo artist helping breast cancer survivors to reclaim their sexuality and process their trauma -

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