Kintsugi: Life and Healing after Cancer

I had just turned 37 and my baby had not long stopped breastfeeding when a doctor found cancer deep in my breast.

A few weeks later, a team of doctors and nurses worked for 11 hours to first take away my cancer and then to fix what was left behind.  

But in the weeks and months that followed my diagnosis, I found myself in a body I didn’t really know or recognise, and that I didn’t trust. I had to get to know myself all over again. 

In the process of coming to terms with the new me, I have discovered that others do not share this acceptance. On a number of occasions, I have found my scars make people uncomfortable. Their eyes widen, I see pity and fear in their eyes and discomfort in their silence as they turn away. 

They see my scars, but they do not see my story.  

So in the years that followed my surgery, I began to research tattoos, artists, designs. I was searching for inspiration, and someone that could create what I feel on my inside, and put it on my outside. 

I became intrigued by the Japanese art of kintsugi (golden repair) for broken pottery. Kintsugi treats the breakage and repair as part of the history of the object, and something that adds value. When I found a tattoo artist whose style fitted what I wanted, I asked her to create a tattoo that included my scar as part of the design, rather than something to disguise. 

When I saw the finished design on the day of my tattoo, it just felt right. 

My scars, and now my tattoo, bear witness to a decision I made to help safeguard my future, to hopefully see my children grow up, and to grow old with my husband. 

They are a testament to the medical professionals who worked to save my life, and who put me back together once they had done so. 

They are a tribute those who supported me when I stumbled, and then helped me stand tall. 

They remind me I am strong. That out of these scars come strength, grace, healing, new beginnings and growth.  

They are a tribute to the women in my family who went before me and met cancer. They did not have this knowledge and they paid for this with their lives. Their gift to me was my life, and I hope I can give this gift to those who follow after me.

So now, if you see my scars, you can see my story too. 

Cancer, you do not define me. I am who I am. My scars are part of my life now, they are me, and I am not ashamed of them.

Tomorrow is not promised, but today is here now.  Live, laugh, and love. Fear less. 

By Estelle Morton

*Tattoo by Angie Dawn at Gallery Custom Tattoo in Wellington.