By Nathalie Bonney @nathaliebonney
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Videographer / director: Dennis Porter
Producer: Nathalie Bonney, Ruby Coote
Editor: Beth Angus
Having endured breast cancer not once but twice Sara Coulson has undergone 26 rounds of chemotherapy, 21 rounds of radiotherapy, a lumpectomy, double mastectomy – and now a tattoo over her mastectomy scars.
The 52-year-old from Gores Landing, Ontario Canada had been considering reconstructive surgery for two months only for doctors to tell her she was genetically at too high a risk of getting cancer again and should delay reconstruction for another year.
Rather than wait Sara decided to get a mastectomy tattoo instead that celebrates her new body, scars and all.
Sara told Barcroft TV: “Having the scar covered up with the tattoo is the final piece of the puzzle. I don’t want to say it will make me feel more beautiful because we are all beautiful in our own ways inside and out.
“It’s not something you can actually put in words, it’s the way it makes you feel. I will get up in the morning now and look in the mirror and I’m going to see this beautiful tattoo and it’s just going to give me a whole different attitude. It’s just going to make me feel that much better within myself.”
The tattoo design incorporates three roses in it – a nod to the many bouquets of flowers husband Gary has given Sara over the years, always with three roses arranged into them.
Sara said: “The first time Gary told me that he loved me, he gave me three roses and told me that each one represents a word in ‘I love you.’
“Ever since then, regardless of what the occasion - when our children were all born, Christmas, anniversaries, it doesn’t matter what the arrangement is, there is always three roses in there to remind me that he loves me.
“I felt that I needed to make that kind of a emotional connection to the tattoo so we put three roses in the tattoo and we have built around that.”
Sara got her tattoo at Koukla studios in Cobourg, Ontario through ‘Project New Moon’, the studio’s non-profit tattoo service offering tattoos to those with scars from mastectomies, as well as other surgeries and self-harming.
With two young children and a demanding job with the family pub and catering business, Sara was first diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 33-years-old, she says the date will stay with her forever.
“I got the phone call on May 17th, which will stay with me because that’s my dad’s birthday and I was absolutely devastated.”
It took eight months for Sara to be cancer-free. First Sara had a lumpectomy, with surgeons removing 10 lymph nodes – because they were all full of cancer, she then underwent a gruelling six-month course of chemotherapy and 21 rounds of radiotherapy.
She said: “Some mornings my daughter Morgan at six would be in the bathroom, she would just yell down the hallway, ‘Mommy I cleaned all your hair in the sink for you’.
“It was emotional for everybody. You know your highs, your lows, you are all over the place.”
Slowly family and work life returned to normal; after their children moved out, Gary and Sara bought a beach house in Florida to escape the long Canadian winters. But in February 2017, while on one of their extended holidays, Sara noticed a lump in her breast and realised the cancer had come back
Gary said: “It took us by surprise. Who would expect after being cancer-free for 18 years that it would come back? And it came back different. Different symptoms. Everything was completely different from the first time. And that's why it was such a shock when the nurse told us that it was cancer.”
This time round the chemo was more aggressive: 16 rounds over five months, but Sara vowed to remain positive. Dubbing her weekly appointments ‘Chemo Thursdays’ she would bring fruit platters to the nursing staff and dress up for the occasion.
Sara said: “I always made a fruit platter or a vegetable platter or something for the nurses. Because I feel that they do a wonderful job
“I had a different outfit for every Thursday, different pair of shoes and would get ready and tell Gary to take my picture.”
Sara’s hair was starting to thin out after her second round of chemo.
She said: “I went to the hairdressers right after chemo and I wanted them to buzz it off. And they said – lets just cut it really short so we can try and keep your hair until mother’s day. And mother’s day, my hair all fell out.
“It’s hard to say where your emotions are. They are kind of all over the place. I was worse when I lost my eyebrows than when I lost my hair. And I believe that losing the eyebrows and then losing the eyelashes that was the last bit of my femininity and it was gone.
“I drew fake eyebrows on. Not very well but we did it. Everybody said that I had the perfect-shaped head to be bald so we make jokes about it and you do what you gotta do.”
While undergoing chemo, Sara had to decide if she should have reconstructive surgery or not. After agonising for two months the decision was taken away from her when doctors told her she should delay reconstruction for at least a year because if a recurrence occurred it would be easier to detect without implants.
Sara said: “There’s no way to explain I was just like – I am okay with who I am. I am okay with how my body is. I mean if I was 20, 30, then yeah definitely I would have reconstructive surgery. But I am in my 50s. I still have a lot of life ahead of me. But I own who I am. I own what I look like.
“I know that I am beautiful inside and out. I have gained a lot of courage and self-respect for myself. And I just think that having this tattoo is an expression of myself.
“I just want something beautiful to look at. The scars are always gonna be there. I am not hiding it, it’s always gonna be there and it’s always gonna be a part of who I am.
“This brings everything to a closure for me. It’s the end of a long hard road and it’s given me something beautiful to get up and look at in the morning.”