Thursday, January 18, 2018

After the initial surgical scars have healed, some women are making the choice to beautify their mastectomy scars with elaborate and colorful tattoos. While this is a very personal choice, I applaud the women who are brave enough to use their bodies as a statement of survival. Turning the ugliness of cancer into a form of body art takes guts. Finding a tattoo artist willing to work over the top of scarred tissue is challenging, but more and more women are making the choice to ink their chests. But is this choice a wise one? Can the beauty come at a cost?

When I had my breasts removed in 2014, I was unaware of the popularity of breast cancer survivors and chest tattoos. Although I already have many tattoos on my body, I never gave a thought to having my scars covered with ink. Having needles inserted into tender scar tissue wasn't appealing to me, in fact, it was downright scary.

I didn't realize, until I began to research more about breast tattoos, that inking our bodies could be dangerous. I never dreamed that the permanent ink I had applied to my body could travel, accumulate and lodge in my lymph nodes. But in an article, I discovered it was true. According to the article, published in September 2017, research suggested that tattoo ink can cause cancer. While this claim hasn't been proven, it does provide food for thought.

Apparently, the researchers on this study were from France and Germany. Tissue samples, from both people with and without tattoos, were obtained from a selection of deceased individuals. Various testing was performed to measure the levels of dye and metals stored in the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes from the neck, underarms and groin were examined. Scientists looked for answers to these questions:

Do organic pigments travel from the skin to the lymph nodes?
Do people with tattoos have more potentially toxic metals in their skin and lymph nodes?
What size are particles from pigments, and what size are the particles that travel to lymph nodes?
Do the particles affect surrounding tissue?

A specialized technique called spectroscopy was used. During this analysis, samples of organic matter were measured using the wavelength of light and documenting where those measurements fell on the light spectrum.

Researchers found, "strong evidence for both migration and long-term deposition of toxic elements and tattoo pigments from tattoos on the skin into the lymph nodes."

While their studies were inconclusive, it does seem our bodies were made to filter out foreign particles and some of these, including pigments from tattoo ink, can be stored in our skin or lymph nodes.

The researchers explain how tattoo pigments are picked up as "foreign bodies" by the body's immune system and are then stored in the skin and lymph nodes.

Ink used for tattoos is generally sold in ready-to-use containers. These inks can contain a number of colorants, preservatives or fillers.

Toxicities may differ from color to color. In this article, a description of how inks are made causes some concern.

"To make black ink, for instance, manufacturers might use soot or powdered jet, or cinnabar and common rust to make red. Some of the ink ingredients, like the metal cadmium, are known carcinogens, while others, like carbon black, are "possibly carcinogenic", according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization (WHO).

However, this does not necessarily mean that these chemicals are dangerous to human health, said Hayley Goldbach, a resident physician in dermatology at UCLA Health, a health care system affiliated with the University of California at Los Angeles."

Pigments used in tattoo ink have not definitively been linked to causing cancer. However, some harmful metals or toxins could be present in them. Since the long-term effects of such materials haven't been studied, it might be wise to think before you ink.

But one thing baffles me. If there is a considerable risk of ink accumulating in the lymphatic system, why do radiation clinics often tattoo their patients with tiny dots used to help align them under the linear accelerator? Wouldn't the ink used, even if it was medical grade, pose a problem in the future? It just doesn't seem to make sense.

According to another article, nearly four of every 10 millennials have tattoos. Among Generation Xers, only about 32 percent have tattoos and among baby boomers, the number drops to 15 percent. In the US, nearly four in 10 millennials have tattoos, according to a Pew Research Center report.

According to Dr. Bruce Katz, a fellow with the American Academy of Dermatology and director of the Juva Skin and Laser Center in Manhattan, "For those looking to get inked, it's crucial to do your research: Make sure the artist is reputable, get references from clients, and ensure that they are using disposable needles and unopened ink to prevent infections."

After having read these articles, I had to rethink my decision to get tattooed. Maybe I shouldn't have done it. Maybe I should have done a little research to find out what types of inks my tattoo artist was using and where they came from.

I didn't start getting tattoed early in life. In fact, I got my first tattoo at the age of 50! It was on my bucket list. After my children were grown and I'd become a grandmother, I decided to finally cross that item off my list. I found a local artist and went in for my first ink. I didn't believe it when friends told me tattoos were addictive, but I quickly found out it was true. I had three more tattoos before my breast cancer diagnosis. When I was going through radiation treatment, I laughed when the technician asked if I minded being tattooed. She explained it would help them get me properly positioned at each session. After agreeing to be tattooed, she applied six tiny dark blue dots along my torso.

On my first cancerversary, I had a pink ribbon tattoo added to my right calf. Inside it, I had the date of my surgery inscribed. In subsequent years, I've had a small butterfly added to that ribbon for each year I've survived cancer. My children and grandchildren think I've got enough ink on my body, but I won't promise them not to get another just yet.

Making the choice to adorn your body with ink is ultimately your decision but if you currently have cancer or may be predisposed to it, please weigh your options carefully. Hopefully, in the future, there will be more medical research done on the lymphatic system and how it responds to the various types of tattoo ink. Until then, be wise. Think before you ink


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