Petrina Hamm had been through so much: A diagnosis of breast cancer, although she had no family history of the disease. Six months of chemotherapy. Surgeries to remove her ovaries and her right kidney. A double mastectomy and then reconstructive surgery.
Hamm was grateful to be cancer-free, but she hated looking in the mirror and seeing the scars around her breast implants.
"Having two children and nursed them, I liked my breasts,” said Hamm, 45, of Apex. “I mean, these are much less droopy, but they're not really mine."
Hamm wanted to reclaim her body, to put a final stamp on her cancer journey. So she decided to get a tattoo that covers her chest like a lacy bra.
But first, Hamm set out to help other breast cancer survivors “feel more beautiful and confident after everything they’ve been through.” She started Art from Scars, a nonprofit that connects women with tattoo artists and helps cover the cost.
The group’s first recipient, 55-year-old Debbie Phillips of Lexington, was set to get her tattoo this week at Apex Tattoo Factory, where Hamm got hers earlier this month.
“For me, I think it’s going to make me feel a little bit sexier,” Phillips said.
Cancer and its treatments can wreak havoc on a woman’s body, from hair loss to joint pain and forced menopause. But the psychological toll – depression, loss of libido and feeling less feminine – can be just as daunting. Hamm said it can be much like post-traumatic stress disorder.
Hamm, a stay-at-home mom with two biological children and two stepchildren, wasn’t experiencing any symptoms when she was diagnosed in May 2016. She had planned to have a lumpectomy, but doctors found more cancerous tumors, and the disease had spread to her lymph nodes. She opted for a double mastectomy as a precautionary measure.
Doctors also removed Hamm’s right kidney after they found a mass. They later removed her ovaries to prevent the disease from spreading there.
“You ask yourself why, and there’s really no answer,” Hamm said.
During the mastectomy, doctors inserted tissue expanders “that feel like cement basketballs” to prepare Hamm for implants. After reconstructive surgery, doctors took skin off of her hip to create nipples, which she later got tattooed with color to make them look more realistic.
Friends joked that Hamm was getting a free boob job. But she missed her old breasts, which she affectionately called Lucy and Ethel. She calls the new ones “Real Housewives” after the TV show.
Hamm said she was fortunate to have good health insurance, but medical bills piled up. And she realized that many women can’t afford decorative tattoos, which can cost hundreds of dollars.
There are other groups that help connect cancer survivors with tattoo artists, including P.ink, which hosts special events at cities around the country. Hamm wanted Art From Scars to focus on women in North Carolina, but right away she started getting applications from women outside the state.
This isn’t the first tattoo Hamm has gotten since her diagnosis. She went to Apex Tattoo Factory in January to get a fish and her wedding date on her wrist, because her husband collects freshwater fish.
She also dyed her a hair a few times, once with “mermaid” pastel colors. The chemotherapy turned her once-straight hair curly. For her, it’s about living a “I-do-what-I-want lifestyle.”
Matthew “Jax” Myers, who owns Apex Tattoo Factory, spent hours on a recent Monday evening to draw the intricate design on Hamm’s chest. He also did Phillips’ tattoo on Tuesday, after Hamm told him about her nonprofit.
“I instantly wanted to help,” Myers said. “I wanted to be a part of it. … The scars are a constant reminder of everything they’ve been through. So instead of scars being the reminder, they are going to have awesome art.”
Phillips said she opted for a double mastectomy instead of radiation two years ago for “peace of mind” that her cancer won’t return.
“Even if I didn’t do the tattoo, I would go on living, and I wouldn’t let it bring me down,” she said.
At the same time, she added, “I want to feel pretty.”