The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Permanently Stargazing, Constantly Changing

by Aileen BurkeSurvivor, MelanomaJanuary 5, 2023View more posts from Aileen Burke

Any cancer patient knows the sound, and they know it well; even subconsciously. While it might not have a name to the common public, the crinkle of sanitary plastic seal peeling back to reveal a thin, metal needle is something familiar to us. That becomes a sound that’s just simply a part of your life, like the oven timer or your iPhone alarm clock. Some of those sterile, shining needles start IV drips for chemotherapies or anesthesia. Others spur the process of emotional healing.

I was starting my Master’s program for Social Work when I stumbled on her profile. A tattoo artist local to upstate New York running a stuffed animal drive for children separated from their parents at the United States and Mexico border. Of course, I had to read more. I appreciated the concept and the intention, looking at the more human elements of a politicized tragedy. I was moved by someone using their talent to altruistically benefit others. I followed her, but unfortunately forgot about it. I just like looking at art sometimes, and tattoos—if nothing else—are in fact art.

It had been a few months since I finished active treatment. The rhythm of my life was slowly but surely becoming less stringently dictated by the schedule of a scan, appointment, infusion, scan, appointment, infusion, with the breath-held life in between those items existing as a waiting period for the next set of appointments to arrive. I was excited and even grateful for this change. I was at peace with a new season of my own life.

Then, that peeling noise started to make me cry when I heard it. I could feel the grinding in my molars. Just another poke. Just another stick. Another inevitable apology when a well-intentioned lab tech couldn’t find the vein they needed to get my blood or when the nurse had to give me the medicine I needed. It was just another way I started to feel as though my life lacked any semblance of control. My lungs would lock up like they were clad in iron. Another period of waiting for the appointment to be over. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my body had me in a vice grip. There was no connection between what my physical person could do and who I was in my mind’s eye. I started to take that disjointed feeling as a given. I forgot what it was like to feel present in my own skin. This is just another feeling that I imagine folks in Cancerland know well.

After a particularly rough attempt to draw blood for labs, I was walking to my car when I looked down to get my keys out of my purse and noticed I had bled through my gauze and pressure dressing. I had to walk back in and ask for another Band-Aid, maybe just a little alcohol to clean off the cherry red blood stain so that I could eliminate the reminder of the strange things my body does that I have no control over.

These slowly accumulating experiences are regular occurrences that people, especially those who have always made a point of telling me just how inspirational I am, do not see.

I don’t think I could tell you exactly when I came back to that tattoo artist, but I know I made the decision very abruptly after that one set of labs. My friends and I had just leased an apartment in Albany, New York, with no air conditioning and hundred-year-old, heavy wooden doors. It was the kind of apartment that collegiate girls are written to have on B-grade sitcoms, and I loved it. We ate roasted vegetables and only drank seltzer and I thought, “This is being an adult.” It’s making a choice and owning it.

Lightning didn’t strike per se, but the other thing that adults can choose to do is get a tattoo. So, naturally, I came back to Jane, the tattoo artist. Art teacher by day, artist by all of the rest of the time. She specializes in stick and poke tattoos, or a process that people in the industry call “stargazing.” Her art is creating these images with a series of tiny dots instead of machine lines. The method initially didn’t matter to me as much as feeling safe with my artist did. From what she posted online, I knew that Jane looked and felt like she could have been an old friend of mine.

I booked before I lost my nerve, and suddenly a beautiful tulip (my favorite flower) was there on my left calf toward my ankle. The process was peaceful, almost meditative. Similar to the sound of peeling plastic and the consistency of scans, actually being poked by a needle was not a new feeling for me; a sensation normal enough that I actually almost fell asleep.

The joy came when I saw the result of that needling feeling was finally something beautiful instead of blood and a bruise. Stargazing with Jane was something I wanted to happen to my body. I found a talented artist that I chose myself, and she shared her art in a way that made me feel safe and strong and not patronized for feeling nervous about another set of hands navigating my skin. I didn’t realize how many people had exerted power over my body until I consciously gave that power to my artist. I know that experiencing a feeling of power is something I still have much more control over than my Black and Brown peers, and there is a privilege in that. One that is not lost on me.

My tattoos are what finally set me on a path toward forgiving my body for all that we have done and been through together. That cute little tulip led to a mug, which led to a set of blueberries on my wrist, and one more on my right thigh that’s just for me. I choose who sees that final one. It’s another way that I can exercise control over myself and what I share about my body with others, which for so long was inhabited by medical providers who claimed to know who I was, but who simply knew my vessel instead.

In the time between that first tulip and now, I have seen many things change within myself and the world around me. Jane has grown and expanded her work as a tattoo artist, which I am oddly proud to be a part of. I have graduated from a Master’s program in Social Work and now work as an oncology social worker. I still have tremendous amounts of anxiety when I go for medical testing, even in survivorship. While I have been working on healing what I can, I think we know quite well that the healing process is not linear in nature. When I look at my tattoos, I am reminded of the true constant that is my body, my vessel that will continue to propel me through this perpetual sense of change.

I am not defined by its failings. I am defined by my choice to keep loving this body despite what has happened, and instead actively adoring its enduring potential.

This article was featured in the 2022 Body issue of Elephants and Tea Magazine! Click here to read our magazine issues.

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