Finding my way: Creating a meaningful career after cancer

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Everyone has a different story to tell.  This is my story.

I’m Rebecca, I’m 48 and I’m a Paramedical & Cosmetic Tattoo Artist.  I am also a wife and mother. We have 2 children, Ruby 16 and Jake 13.  I had a career in advertising before I was a mother, but painting and drawing have been a lifelong passion of mine.  So while raising the children I went back to study Fine Art at Massey University. I graduated in 2014 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with First Class Honours.

In March 2015 I went to my GP after finding a lump in my breast.  Small and hard to decipher it took me a couple of months to figure out if it was really there.  After scans and biopsies I was told I had a Grade 3 tumour.  I heard the words “ductal carcinoma”, “lumpectomy” – I had thought if someone told you, “You have cancer”, you would burst into tears.  I didn’t.  Not straight away. I remember asking the doctor if he was joking? He wasn’t!  I remember asking if someone could please hurry up and crack a joke so we could all laugh at what I had just heard.  But nobody was laughing and it wasn’t a joke. Tears did come. I felt them well and spill over, down my face, into my lap. I remember being more concerned about my son outside in the waiting room and my daughter at the school gate waiting to be collected than this shocking news.  This was the start of a long marathon, one I had not and could not have prepared for. Another biopsy would reveal I also had Pagets disease in the nipple of that same breast.  I thought a disfigured breast through lumpectomy was bad enough, now I wasn’t even going to have a breast!

With aggressive tumours, I was sped into 6 months of neo-adjuvant chemotherapy and being HER 2 positive, it was followed by 12 months of Herceptin. Chemo was long and hard. Ruby and Jake were 13 and 11 then, I was 45.  They were old enough to understand, so the best we could do was tell them we would always be honest with them. I lost all my hair. To this day I am traumatised by that.  I am traumatised by a lot of the things that happened in those 2 years. It was a personal choice and a difficult decision to make but I opted to have a double mastectomy.  After chemo I had 3 reconstructive surgeries, -  in January, April and July of last year.  

What had begun as a negative, I decided to turn into a positive. During my 3 reconstructive surgeries, I re-trained and set up a new business in Paramedical Micropigmentation. I chose to grab my life back even if it meant training while I was recovering from surgeries and still undergoing treatment.  At the time it seemed simple.  I had lost a nipple so I wanted to find out how to get one back.  If not for myself, then for others. I’m an artist, I thought I can do that.  Not everyone wants a nipple tattoo, but it’s what set everything in motion for me. Whether you choose no reconstruction, or have reconstructed breasts with or without nipples, to me however cancer leaves us, the female form remains strong and beautiful, the marks we are left with from the surgeon’s knife are testament to the battles we have fought.

I trained here and in Australia and am now a Master Technician having trained in all areas of Micropigmentation. It’s an advanced and sophisticated form of tattooing, quite different to body art tattooing.  I’m now fully qualified in advanced paramedical skin/scar/burn camouflage, 3D nipple/areola breast reconstruction, cosmetic enhancements as well as scalp aesthetics for hair loss. 2016 was busy!

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Empathy comes from many things, for me deeper empathy arose, because I learned what it is like to lose all my hair; I found out what it’s like to endure months of gruelling treatment and be made dangerously ill from the drugs that will ultimately save your life; I wish I didn’t but I also know what it’s like to stare my own mortality in the face.   I think some of these things make you think more deeply about what others have to face in their lives and you look for new meaning in your own life.  With my artistic background and an encounter with a life threatening disease, combined with a new technical skill, I can now help others overcome what accident, disease and illness inflict upon them.  I did not think I would find it this way, but I have found something in life that is meaningful and something that can literally be life-changing for others.

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