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Breast Cancer Awareness: Why I love my mastectomy tattoos

For the first time in 13 months, I had the final say in what happened to my body. And it was liberating.
/ Source: TODAY
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Editor's note: This story contains images of breast cancer survivors after reconstructive surgery, and may not be suitable for all audiences.

Breast Cancer Awareness
Tracy Birdsell Photography

I can easily recall the almost Jetsons-like automation of breast cancer treatment once you’re diagnosed. You become a machine — a cancer-fighting machine — programmed to go here, lie still, take this, sign that, stand there, sit back, step up, repeat.

The day they release you from treatment and back into your life, you slowly emerge from this lifting fog. It’s the first time in the entire process you have the time and hindsight to sit down and think about what you’ve gone through as a patient.

The first thing I did was survey my body in a full-length mirror to see what I'd been through in the past year.

What I realized was that I wasn’t myself; I felt unfinished.

At this point I was nearly "put back together" after a bilateral mastectomy and breast reconstruction and I realized I had three choices: 1). Continue the process and add nipples, 2). Leave my new breasts the way they are, or 3). Find another solution to make me feel whole.

For me, nipple reconstruction was automatically out. Although many women love them, I just wasn’t interested in making my fake breasts look like something they weren’t. But, in all honesty, I hated looking at the scars. They simply weren’t working for me.

So, I chose another solution. There was no doctor, nurse or clinician of any kind standing over me. This was the first decision I got to make all by myself.

I asked myself, “Who are you going to be now? What story do you want to write?”

I wanted my story to have depth, color, texture and lines. And it helped me look at my reconstructed chest in a different light — like an artist assessing a blank canvas.

Nikki Reily Photography

I decided I wanted to tattoo over my scars, so I did. I was drawn to cherry blossom trees and their significance, so I went with it. I found someone whose style I liked, so I contacted him. For the first time in 13 months, I held the reins and I called the shots. I had the final say in what happened to my body.

It was liberating.

I could download all of my feelings about breast cancer into three six-hour sessions and come out on the other side feeling confident and proud.

Nikki Reily Photography

It is so important to love yourself and love your body (whether or not you’ve been through breast cancer) and as women, we owe it to ourselves to listen to what our hearts want.

For some women, it’s nipple-sparing; for others, it is the decision not to reconstruct. For me, it was first the tree of life inked almost like a bralette around my chest and then, later, a tattoo of a lotus flower covering my port scar. Being able to look in the mirror and see art traversed across my body is empowering, not just because it looks pretty and covers my scars, but because it gives me a sense of strength. It is a constant reminder not of the cancer, but that I was able to take control of my life afterward.

Nikki Reily Photography

It’s been several years since the first session with my incredible tattoo artist, Delshay, and I make it a point to talk very openly about my decision to get a mastectomy tattoo.

My motivation is not to recruit others to do the same, but to let women know that it's OK to go your own way. There is always another solution if the one presented doesn’t feel just right. The best decision you can make in anything you do is the one about which you feel most confident. So stick up for yourself and your feelings. Even if you’re the first one to blaze that path, there will be those who follow. Someone has to be the first, right?

It might as well be you.

This story was originally published on Oct. 28, 2015 on TODAY.