By Sarah Kuper
Tattoo removal can be a long and expensive process to undo what seemed like a good decision at the time.
But for women with tattoos from breast cancer radiation therapy, removing the marks is more a matter of getting back to feeling normal.
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Skin Wellness Center of Alabama is offering free radiation tattoo removal for women surviving breast cancer.
When undergoing radiation, the targeted area must be marked with India ink, which is similar to tattoo ink, so the therapist can precisely aim the radiation.
Although the marks are barely bigger than a freckle, some women may require several tattoos, and they can be a constant reminder of the experience.
Dr. Corey Hartman is the founder and medical director of the multilocation dermatology practice. He is passionate about Breast Cancer Awareness Month because his mother fought the disease twice.
In addition to his family connection with breast cancer, his work life also drives home the effects of the disease. Hartman treats patients for the many dermatological side effects of cancers, but he also has a member of his staff undergoing treatment.
Although she hasn’t had to have radiation therapy, marketing director Haley Isbell has been through 11 rounds of chemo since she was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer last December.
Isbell is 32 years old with two small children.
“Because I’m young and was diagnosed – it grabs people’s attention, but it seems it is happening to more people my age,” she said.
The free tattoo removal service is a passion project for Isbell because of her own fight with breast cancer and because she knows what it is like to feel self-conscious about how treatment can change a woman’s appearance.
“I witness firsthand how your fingernails become brittle and your skin becomes dry,” Isbell said, “We want to think we are above caring what people think, but the truth is we do care how we look.”
Women with breast cancer may also undergo more substantial physical changes through lumpectomy or mastectomy procedures. Side effects such as hair loss and early onset menopause, along with concerns over fertility and sexuality also can plague survivors.
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer survivors may also struggle with their sense of identity.
Mental health experts with the ACS say it is not uncommon for a woman to feel like a different person after going through treatment. Emotions can range from joy and relief to uncertainty and worry that the cancer may come back.
Experts say it is important to have a support system. Isbell said she leans on hers every day.
“I sometimes feel like I’ve highjacked everyone’s life but my family helps me keep living life normally,” she said, “I’m very thankful treatments have come as far as they have and UAB is phenomenal – the best of the best care.”
Isbell believes the staff and services at Skin Wellness can serve as a source of support, as well. Tattoo removal can take up to six treatments, so Isbell looks forward to forming relationships with survivors.
“We will treat to complete, until the tattoo is gone,” she said, “We will be getting to know these women well.”
Isbell said each session only takes a few seconds and patients can have the area numbed. Skin Wellness uses a laser treatment called PicoSure.
By offering the free tattoo removal, Hartman is sacrificing revenue and time.
Typically, a one-hour consultation costs $100 and each individual treatment session can be more than $400.
To take advantage of the free radiation tattoo removal, a patient needs to schedule the consultation by the end of October.
For more information on Skin Wellness and radiation tattoo removal, visit skinwellness.com.
For more information on life after breast cancer, visit cancer.org/breastcancer. ❖