When Westlake Village resident Sherri Rosenthal, then 60, learned she had stage 1 breast cancer in 2013, she reacted calmly. Even though the invasive ductal cancer tumor in her left breast was small and not aggressive, she told the breast surgeon she wanted both breasts removed.
Rosenthal was notified by the radiologist that read her mammogram that she had dense tissue. Once notified, she opted to have an ultrasound. Rosenthal’s tumor only showed up on the ultrasound and not the mammogram. The California Breast Density Notification Law had just gone into effect in April 2013 and requires imaging centers to notify patients who have dense breasts.
“I wasn’t that upset,” says Rosenthal. “At the time, the breast surgeon didn’t believe I needed the bilateral mastectomy, but I knew it was right for me.” There was no family history of breast cancer in Rosenthal’s family but because she is of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, she had genetic testing done. She was notified that she has the BRCA 2 genetic mutation. Rosenthal later learned that her heritage has a risk of 1 in 40 BReast CAncer (BRCA) mutations while the general population is 1 in 500. Her risk of another breast cancer was high, so the decision to have the full mastectomy was the right one. Both of her daughters also carry the genetic mutation and are monitored closely. Her younger daughter, at age 28, had a preventive double mastectomy and reconstruction after a very large tumor was found. Fortunately, it was benign.
After Rosenthal had her mastectomy and reconstruction surgeries, she was inspired to tattoo her breasts to cover the scarring after watching a television interview about Personal Ink (P.ink), a mastectomy tattoo nonprofit organization that helps connect breast cancer survivors with tattoo artists who can provide them a sense of healing.
“Some women are absolutely devastated and feel deformed (after a mastectomy),” says Rosenthal. “Fortunately, I didn’t have that, but every time I looked in the mirror, I saw the scars and was reminded what I had been through.”
In 2015, Rosenthal applied to receive free tattooing at the P.ink Day Los Angeles event in October. After being selected, she got cherry blossoms tattooed on her left breast. She later went to Holly Feneht at Gilded Lily Design in Santa Clarita to have orchids tattooed on her right breast and a butterfly over her heart.
“The orchids are tropical flowers and thinking of Hawaii helped me through the various surgeries. The butterfly represents my mom who had passed away 11 months before I was diagnosed,” says Rosenthal.
In 2016, Rosenthal became the P.ink Day Los Angeles local leader and hosted the event at Gilded Lily Design for two years. Last year was the P.ink Day Los Angeles’ first event in the Conejo Valley at Clear Vision Tattoo in Moorpark.
Women wanting to sign up to receive a free tattoo are required to submit five images of their tattoo design ideas, two photos of their “canvas,” a photo of themselves and what the tattoo will mean to them through the P.ink website. The selected recipient must also have had their surgery at least two years ago and not have any other tattoos on their chest other than nipple tattoos. Travel costs are paid by the participant if going to a city outside of their residence.
“The artists like a clean slate,” says Rosenthal. “Once you had a mastectomy and have these scars, this is where you get to choose what you want on your chest. It’s absolutely life changing.”
Out of the approximately 100 women who apply each year, the information for those who requested Los Angeles are sent to Rosenthal. Five very fortunate women are chosen and start collaborating with their artists.
“For those not chosen, we can direct them to a good tattoo artist, if they are able to pay,” says Rosenthal. “They’re also encouraged to sign up again next year.”
This year’s P.ink Day will be held in 14 cities across the U.S., including Canada. In Moorpark at Clear Vision Tattoo, five artists will transform lives on Sunday, Oct. 13. Rosenthal says Owner Rick Sutherland believes in giving back and does a lot of scar work in addition to mastectomy tattoos.
“The artists are devoted to this day,” says Rosenthal. “Last year a few of the artists couldn’t finish in one day but devoted enough time to finish the tattoos later.”
Rosenthal says the day of the event runs smoothly. A meet and greet is held the night before with the recipients and artists viewing the final sketches and making any last-minute design adjustments.
“(Last year) we could not have gotten better matches,” says Rosenthal. “Our recipients had very different requests and the matching with artists went perfectly.”
Event day begins in the morning with the artists transferring the design onto tracing paper and applying it to the woman’s chest, leaving a purple outline to begin outlining. Snacks, lunch and beverages are served throughout the eight-hour day.
“We try to discourage the women from looking in the mirror during the day. We love to have the big reveal once the tattooing is done, when each woman looks in the mirror,” says Rosenthal. “The process is exhausting but the women get something of their own choosing instead of the scars, that are constant reminders of what was done to them.”
Each woman brings a support person to hold their hand, if needed. The support person also reads out loud love notes from family and friends as the recipient is being tattooed.
“The day is about making these women whole,” says Rosenthal. “There’s a saying that tattoos are the scars that you choose. It’s extremely personalized.”
The Final Say
Breast cancer survivors from Bakersfield, Carson, Downtown Los Angeles, West Hollywood, Rosenthal’s friend from Pittsburgh and Kim Pusl of Simi Valley were last year’s recipients. In 2012, Pusl, 47, had a 14-centimeter (5.51 inches) benign tumor removed from her right breast.
“I said (to the doctor) okay, let’s fix this,” says Pusl.
After her mastectomy and reconstruction surgery, Pusl was left with 18-and-a-half inches of scarring. She began researching options for covering up her scars and discovered P.ink on social media. She immediately applied for last year’s P.ink Day.
“I was crazy excited (when I was chosen),” says Pusl.
Pusl’s tattoo was designed by her friend that consisted of Poinsettia, Marigold and Larkspur flowers representing her two daughters and Pusl’s birth months held together by a pink ribbon. The hummingbird that was also incorporated represented her husband.
“He was always flying around protecting me,” says Pusl.
During the event, the tattoo took eight hours and a remaining three sessions were scheduled to finish the masterpiece. Pusl says she didn’t feel the pressure of the tattoo needle because she was so numb from her scarring. Her support friend read her inspiring notes from family and friends.
“They were reminding me of my strength, that they were proud of me and excited that I was able to have this done,” says Pusl.
When the process was completed, Pusl knew she came out on top.
“I looked in the mirror and I thought, ‘I win’,” says Pusl. “I got the final say. I earned those scars but now they are mine.”
If there is one thing Rosenthal wants people to understand about P.ink is that it is available and acceptable.
“Most doctors are very supportive of it and in a situation when you are diagnosed, there’s very little you have control over,” says Rosenthal. “This is where you take control back. It can be more healing than people even think.”
For more information or to donate to P.ink, visit P-Ink.org.