My New Tattoos

I was the girl who proclaimed and promised: “I’ll never get a tattoo.”

“No.” I thought as I noticed the butterfly on the cool mom’s back at the pool in Palm Springs, “Not for me.”

The celtic band around the ankle on the lady in front of me at line at Trader Joe’s, “not my style.” The dolphin on the inside wrist of the barista at Starbucks, “What will she do when she’s older?” I wondered.

But cancer as they say, changes everything.

Today is tattoo Tuesday. The small needle pricks the top layer of my skin. A drop of permanent black ink seeps into my skin.

“It’s just a quick sting, like getting a shot.”

MaryAnn is not a tattoo artist. She’s a radiation therapist. She is putting one tattoo on my left side, another on my right side and a third on my upper stomach. They are smaller than a freckle.

In the coming weeks, the technician will use the tats to line up my body for daily radiation treatments. She also uses a black marker that tickles my side where she scrawls strange lines and X’s.

When I leave the radiation center a few minutes later, I look like one of the eerie Voodoo dolls I saw on a recent vacation in New Orleans.

(“It really works. Cast a mystical spell!) As I walk under the palm lined path of the hospital campus on this October morning, the sun is just beginning to trickle over the Santa Susana Mountains.

There is no hint of the 105 degree heat that will visit later today. I am struggling to hold the blue plastic mold of my body in my arms. It is like a small bean bag chair with the air sucked out. I realize it looks like part of an odd Halloween costume. But the young doctor who passes me stops texting for just a moment as he studies me.

He knows it is a tool for treating cancer. I smile and notice something that looks like sympathy staring back at me.

My body mold will be used to immobilize me during treatment.

Radiation therapy is an exact science. Used in 80 percent of all cancers, it attacks the DNA of cancer cells. After being zapped, the cancerous cells will be unable to divide and reproduce.

Because my heart and lungs are so close to the tumor site in my chest, Grace the oncology nurse tells me: “We have to get it right. We can’t mess around.”

It’s been 53 days since my surgery. Since then I have been caught in a vortex of doctors’ appointments, scans and tests. I am eager to begin the radiation process, eager to kill off any rogue cells that have moved into my body. It is time for their eviction notice. But I must wait.

In the next few days, my radiation oncologist and a physicist will study my scans and develop a treatment plan.

At home that night, I will struggle in front of the mirror to find my tattoos. The one in the middle is easy to spot. I contort my body but can’t find the other two.

I think about the butterflies, celtic bands and dolphins.

I realize my tattoos really aren’t that different. They are three small dots scattered across my midsection.

Like other tattoos, they tell something about what’s important to me, they tell where I’ve been… and more importantly they tell where I’m going.

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