Connected by cancer and tattoos

Not only are our three Super Survivors connected by breast cancer, but each have a tattoo, that for them, symbolises their individual survivorship.

Connected by cancer and tattoos

Kathy Phillips (61) is married and lives with her husband in Edenvale, JHB. They have two adult daughters and two grandchildren.

Ever since Kathy’s mother passed on, in the late 80s, due to the spread of breast cancer, Kathy went for annual check-ups. “It was a waiting game, each time I went, it was nerve-wracking because I knew it was going to happen some day,” she explained. She had two benign lumps removed, while under the care of the late Mr Luke.

After he passed on, she moved to Dr Ritz at the Bone and Breast Clinic in Illovo; another lump was found but it was calcification. A second lump was found a few years later; it was thought that the calcification had spread, but after a close watch over a period of time, a distinct change was noticed in November 2012. Testing was done, but this time the result came back positive and Kathy was diagnosed with duct cancer. Harsh reality had hit; it had finally happened.

It was advised that Kathy has a right mastectomy, but knowing she was a high risk, she opted to have a double mastectomy. Her thought process was, “Why play around?” During surgery, in December, another small cancerous lump was found in the same breast.

Kathy had immediate breast reconstruction (done immediately after the mastectomy). Nipple reconstruction on the right was done at a later stage, but unfortunately didn’t take. “I think it was due to my healing process…it had to be done twice. It is not a pretty sight to look at,” Kathy noted. Half of the original nipple on the left was taken for biopsy, and according to Kathy, it has since regrown and looks like     a normal nipple.

It was for this very reason – her right nipple’s unattractive appearance – that she decided to get a breast tattoo. “I wanted to make something that was ugly, pretty; it deters you from the nipple and the scaring,” Kathy explained.

Kathy chose Japanese cherry blossoms as they are seen as a symbol of life and were often used as a way to say, “Life is short, live every second as if it is your last.” It reminds her of the love and support shown by her family, colleagues and her medical team. Kathy got the tattoo in September 2014, while on holiday with her two daughters; both of them also got tattoos. She wanted it to be small, but the tattoo artist from WildFire Tattoos, in Cape Town, convinced her to have a bigger one.

According to Kathy, a four-year waiting period is recommended before a tattoo can be done on scarring; she didn’t want to wait, so made sure the positioning of her tattoo was nowhere near her scarring.

About eighteen months after being tattoed, one of her lymph nodes, under her arm, started to swell. During a mammogram, it was picked up and two biopsies were done – the first was inconclusive and the second was clear, however, her breast surgeon still requested to see her, and that is when it was explained that the ink from tattoos can drain into the nearest lymph node and cause swelling. Three months later, the lymph node had reduced in size and Kathy was told everything is as it should be. Kathy is on tamoxifen (for 10 years) and has a check-up every six months.

Kathy and her husband love her tattoo; she won’t be getting anymore as she believes this one is special enough.

Kathy's tattoo

Connected by cancer and tattoos
Kathy chose Japanese cherry blossoms as they are a symbol of life. It reminds her of the love and support she received from family, colleagues and her medical team, but most importantly, to live for the day.
Connected by cancer and tattoos

Monita Vrey (45) is married. She lives with her husband and two children in Boksburg.

Four months before Monita was diagnosed with stage  two aggressive breast cancer, she chose to get a tattoo of four lotus flowers as her family had recently weathered an intense challenging time. Little did she know that a cancer storm was brewing. Each flower – there are four – represents a family member – her husband, her 19-year-old daughter, her 12-year-old son and herself. “My meaning for this flower is survival as the lotus flower can withstand all conditions, and that is what my family did – endured the toughest times,” Monita clarified.

Monita had been in and out of hospital for two months as she had swine flu. She then noticed that her right nipple had contracted. Because her mother was a breast cancer survivor, Monita knew that this was a sign that she too had the disease. She went to get it checked and, in July 2015, the result confirmed what she already knew – she had cancer in both breasts. “Everything just roller-coasted. I thought I was done for, until I met my breast surgeon and oncologist,” Monita said.

Her chemotherapy started in August and finished in February this year. After a three week waiting period, her double mastectomy surgery could be done; three lymph nodes were also removed. Monita’s lat flap reconstruction was done immediately after the mastectomy and her own nipples were preserved. Then, she started her 30 sessions of radiation.

The second tattoo –  the words, “The time when you have seen only one set of footprints is when I carried you” – is dedicated to her husband, Henry. “It is a reminder that every time I think I am alone, he is by my side, and he was, he came to every treatment session and after my surgery was there waiting for me. He had to carry the whole family,” Monita said.

The third tattoo, on her left wrist, is the breast cancer ribbon but is still in the process of being completed. It is a symbol of her survivorship.

All five of Monita’s tattoos were done by Johnny B Goode at Awe Tattoos in Benoni; the other two are her children’s name on her lower back and a tribal sign on her right ankle.

Unfortunately, Monita developed a heart condition – which was caused by the chemo and radiation – where her heart doesn’t function properly and, in turn, makes her tire very quickly; she has to take Prexum, Carloc and Spiractin to treat this condition. “To be honest, I was disappointed and angry when I found out. I had just been through a whole year of being ill, only to then find out something else was wrong that I have to deal with,” Monita explained. She will also be taking Tamoplex for the next 10 years.

“It is still unbelievable that I am over it…my body, however, still needs to recuperate and get back to its normal functioning,” Monita said. “Never neglect yourself…I never went for regular check-ups because of time constraints and, in turn, did my body harm, and that is not the way it should be.”

Monita's tattoo

Connected by cancer and tattoos
Monita has three tattoos; the first is four lotus flowers for each member of her family. Her meaning of this tattoo is survival as the lotus flower can withstand all conditions. The second tattoo is the saying, “The time when you have seen only one set of footprints is when I carried you” and is dedicated to her husband, Henry. The third is an incomplete breast cancer ribbon on her left wrist.
Connected by cancer and tattoos

Alison Chapman (38) lives with her 14-year old son in Greenstone, JHB.

Alison’s mother, Christine, meant everything to her. She wasn’t just her mom, but her best friend, her hero, her strength, her confidante and now her guardian angel. Christine was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2010. Alison watched her mom fight the battle – she sat with her through all her chemotherapy sessions, as her father couldn’t bear to see people suffering, and most of all she kept her mom positive. “That’s really all you can do,” Alison noted.

After six months of chemo, a mastectomy, 33 radiation sessions and breast reconstruction, Christine was in remission and Alison believed all her prayers were answered, but then her world fell apart in December 2012. Her mother’s cancer had spread to her liver and bones. After another three months of chemo, cancerous lesions (abnormal tissues) were found on her skull; chemo was stopped and radiation for the skull commenced. “But in May 2013, her body gave up – it just couldn’t anymore,” Alison explained.

Alison got the tattoo done at Outlawz Ink in Alberton,    a few months after her mom’s passing. “I got it in honour and remembrance of my mother…the English rose was her favourite flower; she always wanted to get one tattooed on herself, but there wasn’t enough time,” she explained. Alison didn’t find the two-hour procedure physically painful, but rather emotionally painful. She went on to explain, “All the memories came flooding back…but now a part of my mom will forever be with me. I cried the whole way through.” Alison has two other tattoos: her son’s footprints on her lower back and his handprints on the upper part of her back.

Ever since her mom was first diagnosed, Alison religiously went for check-ups. Alison suffers with fibroadenomas (tumours formed of mixed fibrous and glandular tissue) and when she went for an ultrasound last year June, the fibroadenoma in the left breast had grown.

A biopsy was done, but it was benign. Six months later, another ultrasound was done and it had grown even more; she was then referred to a breast surgeon for it to be surgically removed. She asked the surgeon to remove the fibroadenoma in the right breast as well, and now looking back, she sees this action as pure instinct as the right fibroadenoma was actually the cancerous one. “You always have to follow your gut,” Alison said. Both were removed and the young mother was officially diagnosed with breast cancer.

“After many sleepless nights on a tear-soaked pillow, I got my head around my diagnosis. This was something I had to beat, not only for myself, but for my mother too…Looking at my son gave me the power to kick cancer in the butt and fight,” Alison said.

Alison’s sentinel lymph nodes were tested and came out clean. Her double mastectomy and reconstruction – she opted to have implants – took place in March 2016. For the next five years, Alison will be injected with Lucrine, every three months, and will have to take tamoxifen tablets everyday. Her nipple reconstruction will be completed this October.

This brave mother plans on having two more tattoos done, on her shoulder blade, in honour of her own battle; the first, which is a saying – “Supporting the fighters, admiring the survivors, honouring the taken and never, ever giving up hope” – will be done before all her treatment in finished, and the second – a Hello Kitty with boxing gloves on – will be done once all her treatment is completed in 2021.

Alison's tattoo

Connected by cancer and tattoos
Alison got her tattoo – a pink breast cancer ribbon, an English rose and her mother’s birthdate and date of passing – in honour and remembrance of her mother, Christine, who lost her battle with cancer in May 2013.

Written by Laurelle Williams.