How Tattoos Give Strength to Breast Cancer Survivors: One Local Mom’s Story

Local Breast Cancer Survivor's Story Makes Its Mark on the Big Screen

How does one take the physical scars from a double mastectomy and turn them into something beautiful so that they no longer serve as a reminder of the emotional scars? For 37-year-old North Shore mom of three Grace Lombardo, that meant covering her mastectomy scars with elaborate floral tattoos, a process that is captured in a new and raw short documentary titled “Grace.”

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, one in eight women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. In April 2016, Lombardo became part of that statistic. Though she had stopped breastfeeding a year prior, she noticed that she was still lactating and made an appointment with her OB-GYN. Her doctor predicted it was nothing of concern, but took extra precaution and scheduled Lombardo for a mammogram. Lombardo had no genetic history of breast cancer and had tested negative for all 23 known gene mutations. Both her doctor and Lombardo were shocked upon learning she had invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer. Lombardo was also surprised to learn that her lactating had no correlation with the cancer and was just the universe’s way of getting her in to see the doctor.

breast cancer: "Grace" documentary
Photo courtesy of the documentary.

Lombardo’s creative outlet during treatment became her blog, aptly titled “Grancer,” which Lombardo jokes is her “Brangelina”-like name created from “Grace + Cancer.” Lombardo’s prose manages to be both heartfelt and often laugh-out-loud funny. On life during chemo, Lombardo writes, “I am currently in ‘reverse’ Cinderella mode. I was living a relatively princess lifestyle (at least that is how it looks in hindsight). I was healthy, the strongest I’ve been since I was a rhythmic gymnast back in the 90s (go ahead, giggle), and I had long flowing princess-like locks. Then comes cancer (evil stepsisters) to F things up. Those bitches ripped off my glass slippers (breasts), poisoned my royal buffet (chemo), pulled out my majestic weave (bye hair), and even turned the mice against me (let’s let evil mice represent the bevy of other terrible side effects). A rotting gourd on rusty roller skates picked me up and took me to Cancertown.”

During the time that Lombardo was blogging, award-wining filmmaker (and breast cancer survivor herself) Rachel Pikelny read an article in the Chicago Tribune about Chicago tattoo artist David Allen. With a years-long waitlist and a huge following among breast cancer survivors around the globe, Allen’s art is helping women heal after cancer. He has studied the connection between innovative mastectomy tattoos and their positive medical implications following surgery. In a recent article for JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, Allen explains, “A successful tattooing experience establishes a new point of reference, a marker that’s intimately theirs that replaces their sense of rupture and damage with an act of creation and, in my work, images of natural life.”

Pikelny reached out to Allen to learn more. He connected her with several women who were on his schedule to be tattooed, one of them being Lombardo. Pikelny was drawn to Lombardo’s blog, her wit and eloquence, and their shared connection as women whom had survived breast cancer while raising young children. Pikelny knew she had found the woman she wanted to profile in her film.

breast cancer: Grace Lombardo
Lombardo with her daughter (Photo courtesy of Grace Lombardo.)

In the documentary, Pikelny films Lombardo interacting with her family, getting back into her daily routine, and talking to her children about her decision to be tattooed where her breasts had once been. Watching Lombardo be tattooed with intricate flowers, the viewer sees the wave of emotions both she and artist Allen experience as her body is transformed. For Lombardo, the choice to tattoo is something that would have been completely out of character pre-cancer, but now feels empowering. “I could take what I found to be a tragic part of my body and re-fashion it into something unique, lovely, and mine,” she says.

breast cancer: Grace Lombardo documentary
Photo courtesy of the documentary.

For those dealing with a cancer diagnosis, Lombardo recommends finding the small ways to have fun within cancer treatment and embracing the absurd. If you’re on a trip to Disney World and being bald allows you to cut to the front of the line, take it! Always wondered what it would be like to dye your hair blonde and wear it in a mohawk? Do it. Lombardo also emphasizes that cancer doesn’t necessarily end once you finish treatment. “I don’t say that to scare people, but to prime them for the fact that emotional healing takes exponentially longer than physical healing. Don’t waste your time waiting for ‘cancer’ to end. You will always carry around a little shadow of cancer, but learn to live as someone who now has the unique perspective to find pockets of joy in every dark corner.”

Likewise, Pikelny says that after her diagnosis, surgery, and chemo while pregnant, followed by 35 rounds of radiation, people would say to her, “It’s over! Aren’t you so glad it’s over?” While Pikelny was glad to be finished with the immediate, direct treatment, she didn’t realize what would come next. “In many ways, it’s been even more difficult to navigate my new identity as a survivor, something that I’ll continue to face for the rest of my life,” Pikelny says. “After viewing the film, I hope survivors see that they’re not alone and that their feelings post-cancer are validated. While each woman’s experience differs, there are some universal truths to surviving breast cancer. Many women, like myself, do not want to attend support groups and share their own story. But seeing another person’s story, warts and all, in an intimate way is incredibly powerful and allows survivors to feel a sense of sisterhood, belonging, and understanding. Nearly everyone has a connection to this issue and, likely, personally knows a survivor. If we can create a more transparent dialogue between those who experience breast cancer and those who care for, and about, them, we’ll all be better off. We almost have a responsibility to do so.”

breast cancer: Grace Lombardo
Lombardo with her son (Photo courtesy of Grace Lombardo.)

“Grace,” the documentary, is currently being screened throughout Chicago and the suburbs:

Additional information and registration can be found on the documentary’s website.


More from Make It Better: 

Jenny MuslinJenny Muslin has been writing for Make It Better for eight years. She has also written for publications such as Chicago Parent, NS Modern Luxury, Red Tricycle, and Stroller Traffic. When she isn’t writing or researching the latest beauty innovations, she’s having a dance party with her husband and two kids. Jenny proudly supports Moms Demand Action and The Chicago Lighthouse