Tattoos are healing what cancer took away

Cancer ransacked Andrea Caron’s body just before her 35th birthday. It stole her breasts and both ovaries and it didn’t stop there. When I met her in 2014, the chemotherapy was looting her hair, eyelashes and eyebrows, too.

Still, she allowed me to tell her story. I watched artist Mary Schmaling-Kearns give her a swirling, blossoming henna crown. Mary called it a blessing. Andrea, who lives in Sweden, Maine, told me it was a gift to herself, to help “find the love and the beauty in all this mess.”

I never knew what happened to Andrea. Truthfully, I was too petrified to ask. She and Mary helped me tell an honest story of hope and beauty. It was my proudest, most emotional work and I was afraid the truth might ruin it all.

I should have had more faith in science and art.

Top: New tattoos on Andrea Caron’s surgically reconstructed breasts are echoed on the wall at 13 Moons Tattoo Studio in Portland. Bottom: Artist Mary Schmaling-Kearns tattoos over a free-handed henna design from earlier in the week. (Photos by Troy R. Bennett)

Top: New tattoos on Andrea Caron’s surgically reconstructed breasts are echoed on the wall at 13 Moons Tattoo Studio in Portland. Bottom: Artist Mary Schmaling-Kearns tattoos over a free-handed henna design from earlier in the week. (Photos by Troy R. Bennett)

This month, by chance, I met Andrea for a second time at Mary’s studio in Portland. Her cancer was gone. Surgeons had reconstructed her breasts and blonde hair spilled from her head. All smiles, she said her prognosis was good.

She agreed to let me tell another chapter of her story. This time, it’s even more personal. Instead of a henna crown, it’s a tattoo. Through my lens, I saw vines and growing leaves spread across her chest under Mary’s needle.

Three years ago, that temporary henna crown allowed Andrea see the beauty of her bald head. Now, the permanent tattoos are marking her body as her own, again.

“Today is a day I’ve been waiting for, to finally put something back on my body that was taken,” she said.

Andrea’s reconstructed breasts are saline-filled sacks installed under her skin. She told me they aren’t like the ones cancer took away. They still feel like foreign objects.

“With this, I just know it’s going to help me accept them a little bit better now,” she said.

Modern medical science saved Andrea’s life and put her body back together. That’s clear. But I’m convinced it’s Mary’s art that protects her spirit.

Before starting the tattoo, Mary uttered a blessing, speaking of energy and peace. She laid her hands on Andreas outstretched body. Lighting a candle, she gave Andrea stones to hold.

Artist Mary Schmaling-Kearns applies a permanently swirling design to Andrea Caron's surgically-reconstructed breasts at 13 Moons Tattoo Studio in Portland. Caron was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and had a bilateral mastectomy after learning she carried the "cancer gene." (Photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Artist Mary Schmaling-Kearns applies a permanently swirling design to Andrea Caron’s surgically-reconstructed breasts at 13 Moons Tattoo Studio in Portland. Caron was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and had a bilateral mastectomy after learning she carried the “cancer gene.” (Photo by Troy R. Bennett)

I don’t know anything about crystals or energy flow. I’m not sure I believe in things I can’t see. But I have faith in Mary. I’ve seen what she can do.

There’s power and grace in her hands. I watched beauty flow out of them, onto Andrea’s skin. It sank, below the surface, underneath what my eye could fathom. It made her feel better. I could see that. I’d call that healing.

When the tattoos were finished, Andrea looked at herself in a full-length mirror.I asked her how she felt.

“I feel one-of-a-kind,” she said, laughing and hugging Mary.

Andrea Caron, 38, reacts to the pain as Mary Schmaling-Kearns tattoos an intertwining vine and leaf design on her chest in Portland. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2013, Caron underwent a bilateral mastectomy. (Photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Andrea Caron, 38, reacts to the pain as Mary Schmaling-Kearns tattoos an intertwining vine and leaf design on her chest in Portland. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2013, Caron underwent a bilateral mastectomy. (Photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Andrea Caron, originally of Aroostook County, looks at her new tattoos for the first time at 13 Moons Tattoo Studio in Portland. The intertwined leaf and vine motive run across both her reconstructed breasts. (Photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Andrea Caron, originally of Aroostook County, looks at her new tattoos for the first time at 13 Moons Tattoo Studio in Portland. The intertwined leaf and vine motive run across both her reconstructed breasts. (Photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Tattoo and henna artist Mary Schmaling-Kearns snaps a photo of her work on Andrea Caron's reconstructed breasts in Portland. Caron had a bilateral mastectomy after being diagnosed with cancer. (Photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Tattoo and henna artist Mary Schmaling-Kearns snaps a photo of her work on Andrea Caron’s reconstructed breasts in Portland. Caron had a bilateral mastectomy after being diagnosed with cancer. (Photo by Troy R. Bennett)



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