My First Tattoo – Three Blue Dots & a $20,000 Bill!

I consider myself a bit of an anomaly for my generation.

Up until my cancer diagnosis in 2016, I was ink-free. Don’t get me wrong, an inked bicep, ribcage, shoulders…ok, ok you get the picture. I find tattoos to be quite sexy. I just haven’t ever loved a design enough to take the plunge myself. So, imagine my surprise, when on the day the stage of my cancer was diagnosed, I also left the hospital with some fresh ink!

The day felt like a whirlwind. I went on a walking tour of the hospital. From one department to another, a scan here and a scan there. I was handed lots of pieces of paper and signed lots of documents. Included in my treatment plan was the standard dose of weekly chemo, radiation 5 days per week for several weeks, brachytherapy and a couple of surgeries thrown in for good measure. It was like I got the tasting platter of treatments. Just enough to get the full experience 😉

Most surprising of all was the radiation portion of the tour.

Staff had forewarned me they would be providing me with a quote for the treatment after I received my tattoos. They strongly suggested I not panic when I see the bill. Giant bill? Tattoos? What do you mean by my tattoos I thought, as I was ushered into a treatment room. The nurses asked me to get up on the bed, lift my top and lower my pants slightly. They began to move around the room collecting the items they would need. “What’s happening?” I asked. “What do you mean I’m getting tattoos?” As they began to set up, the nurses explained the tattoos assist the radiation therapist to position me correctly and deliver treatment to the right location. Given the number of patients they see each day, it also saves a lot of time. “But it’s not permanent right? Will they fade?” The nurses glanced at each other. “No, they’re tattoos sweetheart” they gently explained. I felt sick. The last week had been a series of needles, scrapings, scans and information. I was tired and hanging on by a thread. My body wanted to give out from under me. I wanted to curl up and go to sleep until it was all over. I lay there swallowing the waves of nausea from the stress, as little needles repeatedly pierced my skin. I stared fixatedly at the ceiling and surrendered. I just existed.

It was at this point that I started to feel like a passenger. It felt like I didn’t have autonomy over my own body.

Logically I knew that I did, and that what I was going through would save my life. I also can’t speak highly enough of the level of care I received from the point I had my first consult with the gynecologist. But I still felt completely powerless. I had boarded a rollercoaster that I desperately wanted to get off. All I could feel was the slow climb to the top of the precipice. The chasm in my stomach grew in intensity as I approached the top, waiting to plunge into darkness. “All done, sweetheart, you’re fine to go now”. My eyes shifted down from the ceiling. The nurses were packing things away and disposing of the instruments. I buttoned up my pants and pulled down my top. Swinging my legs over the edge of the bed I walked back out to the waiting area, completely numb. How did I get here? How was this my life? A staff member walked over with paperwork and started to talk me through the process, how many treatments I would receive. Five days per week for several weeks. On the last page was the quote. My eyes landed on the whopping out-of-pocket balance. A touch over $20,000. Trying to keep my cool, I think I failed incredibly. My eyes felt like they would fall out of my head. But what can you do? I signed on the dotted line.

Looking back, I didn’t find the tattoos an ongoing challenge.

To be honest, the scars were worse. I could see the practicality of the markings and appreciated getting in and out of radiation as quickly as possible. But they are permanent, and I can understand why for so many people, having a permanent reminder of the experience isn’t all that fun.

For me, my three little blue dots are now a part of my story.

I’m a redhead with freckles, so what’s a few more spots? I’ve considered potential tattoo designs to build on them but still can’t settle on anything. For now, they honour where my body and mind have been, where I’ve arrived and where I’m going. So, for now they can stay.

In May 2023, NSW Health announced that innovative tattoo-less radiation techniques were being trialed to enhance the experience for breast cancer patients.

Radiation technicians are able to use a three-dimensional light and camera system to view the patient’s skin surface and precisely track movements to ensure the radiation is delivered to the targeted area with pinpoint accuracy. This is such a fantastic step in the right direction to support patients in their cancer journey, and I hope to see it become standard practice in coming years.

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