Every year, millions of women across the world will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Often, they undergo radiation therapy that typically leaves five dots tattooed on the skin. This method is commonly preferred because it is important during radiation therapy that the treatment is performed consistently. Therefore, they are often permanently tattooed.
Breast Cancer Survivor Takes Her Body Back with Tattoo Removal
For many women like Diane Brunner, these dots can be a painful reminder. Diane was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in June 2019 after receiving a routine mammogram. After four rounds of chemo, a double mastectomy on November 8, 2019, and 20 rounds of radiation, she is now living for herself again and taking her body back, starting with radiation tattoo removal.
In the years leading up to her diagnosis, Breast Cancer Awareness Month didn’t have much significance for Diane, but now more than ever she wants to encourage every woman to schedule and go to their routine mammograms. Without hers, it could have cost her life.
Maariana Vikse: One Breast Cancer Survivor’s Healing Journey
It’s estimated that new cases of breast cancer will have affected 65 out of 100,000 Australians in 2020. But despite popular belief, it’s usually not a death sentence. After undergoing treatment that she feels she probably didn’t need for Stage 1 breast cancer, Maariana Vikse is on a mission to help other women make an informed choice about their treatment.
Maariana credits her successful work as an opera singer for her diligence needed to painstakingly research the latest studies. She spends countless hours by a piano memorising words in another language, along with the feeling conveyed by them—all to take her audience on a journey that leads them to lose themselves in the story. It’s all about the people and what she can make them feel with her art.
From this research, she discovered that the recommended standard treatment was so damaging, that it probably resulted in a worse outcome to her health and life than breast cancer itself. She also found that many other women are not given a clear view of how cancer treatment works and what it was going to do to their bodies. Maariana knew that she wanted to make women’s lives better by simplifying the medical information she had discovered.
Now, her work lies in transforming lives through the empowerment of women who haven’t been given the full story about their health.
The trauma caused by overtreatment
Today, fewer harmful tumours are being diagnosed at a higher rate than ever by advanced screening technologies, leading to the issue of overdiagnosis and overtreatment. This idea isn’t a YouTube conspiracy—it’s backed by numerous studies.
Researchers have found that “for each woman whose life is saved through breast cancer screening, around three will be diagnosed with breast cancer that would never have been a problem.” These new diagnoses can only cause harm, rather than help patients. Because doctors are catching tumours at early stages, they often miss how aggressively the tumour may grow—so they take a worst-case-scenario approach.
That means 1 in 16 women will receive cancer treatment she probably doesn’t need, says Maariana. “Basically, the side effects of treatment can end up being much, much worse than having a tumour in the first place.”
Those who are overdiagnosed and overtreated will probably undergo surgery, radiation, and potentially hormonal therapy, says Dr. Peter Sasieni, a cancer expert at King’s College London—all of which have damaging consequences.
“All Stage 1 breast cancer patients are given the exact same treatment plan,” with no consideration for how aggressively the tumour is behaving, Maariana says. She underwent a lumpectomy and five weeks of radiation when diagnosed in 2018, which caused damage to her heart, lungs, ribs, skin, and muscles. “This radiation damage can actually lower my life expectancy more than the non-aggressive tumour could,” she asserts. “If someone had sat me down and said, ‘We’re going to give you a preventative treatment if you want. It will damage your heart, but it most likely will lower the chance of the cancer coming back, though most likely, the cancer will not even bother you,’ of course I wouldn’t have done it!”
Patients have an unspoken trust in their doctor, she emphasizes. They believe their doctor is delivering a cost-benefit analysis tailored to their individual case. When they find out—as Maariana did—that their tumour was most likely not aggressive, they may experience tremendous regret and betrayal.
After all, they believed their life was in danger, bringing severe emotional stress and trauma. Eighty percent of breast cancer survivors end up with PTSD, Maariana asserts. They also suffer chronic pain, as well as extreme financial strain.
“I think about the thousands and thousands of women that have had their breasts removed, believing their life was in danger. Meanwhile, most likely, they had a tumour that would never have caused them any issues,” she says. “That decision should’ve been given to the patient. That decision should’ve been given to me.”
On top of all that, knowing that their suffering was likely unnecessary can be a major cause of trauma.
“I would be up in pain night after night after night,” she says. “This utter feeling of betrayal that doctors had done this to my body without telling me that most likely, my tumour would not have caused any issues.”
Beginning her healing journey
Patients are on their own when it comes to recovery, Maariana says. She found an FDA-approved treatment in a chatroom, but astoundingly, the hospital she’d been going to didn’t believe it was a real treatment. She had to find treatment somewhere else, which cost her a year of pain.
Additionally, the radiation tattoos on her body, which mark the area to be treated, were a constant reminder of the trauma she’d experienced. “When you are not thinking about your cancer, and then you look at yourself in the mirror, and you see something that reminds you, it brings it all back.”
She decided to get them removed as soon as possible. “I emailed every tattoo removal place in New York City; no one would do it for free,” she says—except for the Removery. For a breast cancer survivor struggling with huge financial burdens, that was a wonderful gift.
“The moment I walked into their location, it was all warmth, all smiles. It was this feeling of, I’m in a safe place, and they’re going to take care of me,” she says. After feeling like she’d been just sitting on a conveyor belt being moved from one standard treatment to another, having the artist talk sensitively with her about her experience was a healing moment in her journey.
She had to go back three times for two of the markings and five times for one where the skin had been radiated. They numbed it to make things as comfortable as possible. Compared to what she’d been through, the radiation tattoo removal was a breeze, she says.
How she’s empowering other women
Maariana is working to create an educational program that gives newly-diagnosed women all the options and puts things in perspective. Instead of searching for information in forums, they’ll be able to find the most vital peer-reviewed research all in one place, along with an easy-to-use cost/benefit calculator that helps them evaluate how to proceed. The program will also help women decipher what their doctor is saying, understand the side effects for each treatment, and learn how to speak to their doctor about their options in a way that ensures the most productive conversation possible.
Maariana is currently running a GoFundMe campaign for the project and hopes it will prompt doctors to shift their overall approach to treatment.
A cancer journey gives a person two amazing gifts, says Maariana. “You are going to find inner strength that you never knew you had, and that will translate into everything after your cancer journey. Nothing will intimidate you.” You’ll also gain perspective on what really matters and who your real friends are, she says. She is translating her own inner strength into creating change that transforms other women’s lives—and the Removery is thrilled to have played a small role in that process.
Start Your Healing with Us
Here at Removery, we are dedicated to supporting breast cancer survivors by offering free tattoo removal. We are here to honour Breast Cancer Awareness Month by bringing this initiative to life. If you or a loved one has survived breast cancer and would like your radiation tattoos removed, it would be our honor to remove them free of charge.
Please join us for a consultation and guaranteed free removal for your radiation therapy tattoos by clicking here:
Annals of Internal Medicine, “Overdiagnosis in Breast Cancer Screening: Time to Tackle an Underappreciated Harm”
BreastCancer.org, “About 80% of Women Have PTSD Symptoms after Breast Cancer Diagnosis”
Cancer Research UK, “Overdiagnosis: When Finding Cancer Can Do More Harm Than Good”
The Lancet, “Growing Trends in Thyroid Cancer Incidence and the Impact of Overdiagnosis”
Nature, “Cancer Overdiagnosis: A Biological Challenge and Clinical Dilemma”
New England Journal of Medicine, “Increased Cancer Incidence May Reflect ‘Overdiagnosis’”
ScienceAlert, “Harmless Cancers Are Being Overdiagnosed, According to New Evidence”
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