GEMMA FRANKS, 31, FROM TORPOINT, CORNWALL, UNDERWENT A DOUBLE MASTECTOMY, BUT INSTEAD OF MORE OPERATIONS TO HIDE THE SCARS SHE OPTED TO COVER HER BREASTS WITH GIANT TATTOOS INSTEAD.
As I lay back in the chair, I heard the familiar buzz of the needle start up.
A seething pain shot through me as the metal pressed into my skin, but I closed my eyes and clenched my teeth to try and block it out.
My husband, Craig Franks, 32, sat beside me squeezing my hand and flinching as he watched.
And after three and a half never-ending hours, my tattoo artist, Sophie Gibbons, 26, finally looked up and said: ‘All done.’
I didn’t know quite what to expect, but thankfully, I was overjoyed with the finished masterpiece.
Twirling in front of the mirror, I gazed at the ornate floral design with hummingbirds emblazoned across my breasts. ‘Oh wow,’ I gasped. ‘It’s even more beautiful than I imagined. I love it.’
After receiving my approval, Sophie breathed a sigh of relief.
Some people might think I was mad to have such an intimate area inked. But I wanted something feminine to cover up the scars on my chest caused by a double mastectomy.
I had opted to have the operation after discovering I carried the BRAC2 gene. It typically gives women an 80 to 85 per cent risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer in their lifetime.
I had been automatically referred to Derriford Hospital, in Plymouth, for testing due to my family history.
My auntie, Tina, 36, was told she had the gene and was diagnosed with breast cancer. Sadly, she passed away in 2001.
Then my dad, Paul, 54, was told he also had it. He developed prostate and bone cancer and died in May this year.
Before losing my dad, I anxiously underwent blood tests in March 2012 to see if I too was a carrier.
Four weeks later, when I received the results I could tell by the look on the consultant’s face she was going to be the bearer of bad news.
To my horror I had tested positive for the gene disorder, but I tried to remain calm.
With a niggling suspicion, I had prepared myself as much as I could for that outcome.
Now there were two options – to either have regular screening and wait for cancer to appear – which it might never – or to undergo a double mastectomy as a preventative measure.
Craig and I had discussed the next steps and my medics were well aware that I had already made my mind up.
As a mum of two young children – Harvey, 10, and Ellie, nine – I didn’t want to be a ticking timebomb.
I knew I would always be on edge, waiting for something to show at the check-ups – especially as my family members tended to develop the disease at a young age.
Although I would be frequently monitored, by the time cancer was detected it could be too late. And there would be no guarantee that any treatment would work and rid me of it.
‘I just can’t take that risk,’ I told Craig, when we discussed my plan of action.
‘Do what you think is best,’ he soothed, reassuringly.
I didn’t want my children to have to go through what my cousins and I had after losing a parent.
He completely understood and agreed that it would be best for me to have a double mastectomy before developing cancer – like the Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie.
In January 2013 I went under the knife. During the first operation the double mastectomy was performed and the surgeon inserted chest expander implants.
In theatre for six gruelling hours, when I came around, I was agony. I spent a week in hospital recovering, before being discharged.
Back at our family home in Torpoint, Cornwall, I couldn’t sit up by myself, get in or out of the bath or wash my hair unaided, let alone run around after the children. I relied on Craig for everything.
Then in November 2013 I had a follow-up procedure during which the chest expanders were changed for different implants. I was adamant they didn’t suit my body shape and I had been left feeling uncomfortable and self-conscious.
This time I only spent three hours in surgery and I was on the ward for four days before I could leave.
My breasts were sore, but the pain was nothing compared to my first operation and I felt so much better having had them swapped.
Then medics offered me a third procedure to help repair the scars left behind and reconstruct my nipples. ‘Enough is enough,’ I sighed to Craig. ‘I can’t go through it all again.’
‘You don’t have to,’ he told me.
It wasn’t necessary and would be purely cosmetic. Worried, I didn’t want to endure another bout of surgery. I didn’t want to put my family through the anguish either.
Something could go wrong, I could get an infection and I would have to suffer the pain again. Thoughts whirled in my mind, but eventually I decided to turn it down.
Then I started to think of other ways to disguise the scarring. There was nothing wrong with the marks – they were actually quite neat. But I wanted something to make me feel better about my body.
‘What do you think about me getting a tattoo across my boobs?’ I asked Craig one evening.
‘Something delicate,’ I told him.
‘Sounds like a great idea,’ he smiled.
I had already had flowers etched on to the underside of my right arm, eight years ago, so I knew what I was letting myself in for.
Craig and I sat on the laptop, scrolling through Google images for inspiration.
‘Hmmm, nothing stands out,’ I said.
‘Well, why don’t you design your own?’ Craig suggested.
I knew I wanted something pretty and colourful, which would make me feel womanly so I decided on a swirling pattern of flowers and birds.
The tattoo parlour, Dust’n’Bones, in Plymouth, Devon, was recommended to me by a friend.
I went in for a chat and they thought I might be more comfortable as a woman with another female – Sophie – inking me.
I was told she was great at water colours too, which is what I was after.
I explained what I wanted and Sophie did a rough sketch on a piece of paper.
‘So something like this?’ she said, holding it up.
It looked so elegant. ‘Could I draw it freehand?’ she asked. ‘I think it would flow better.’
I trusted her so said ‘yes’ and this November we went for it.
Sophie completed the work of art in one sitting.
Afterwards I declared: ‘I’m never having another one!’ I had forgotten how much it hurt.
But tattoos are addictive and it was only a matter of weeks before I went in for another one – three small butterflies on my left arm.
Sophie was so pleased with her work on my breasts she wanted to show it off.
‘Do you mind if I take a photo and upload it to Facebook and Instagram?’ she asked.
I wasn’t sure at first, but she had put so much time and effort into it and it would be great to promote her business.
‘Go on then,’ I said, posing topless.
After a day passed, Sophie sent me a message and said: ‘Your tattoo is on Instagram. It’s got 2,000 likes already.’
I was slightly taken aback, but soon the interest went through the roof.
The picture received 25,000 likes on Facebook and a whopping and 52,000 likes and shares on Tumblr. There was a huge outpouring of support and the comments online really inspired me.
The tattoo has made me so much more confident because about my body and although it’s quite different I know it was the right choice for me.
Tattoo artist Sophie says it was the first time she had ever tattooed someone to cover up mastectomy scarring;
“I’ve covered scars before but never mastectomy scars on such an area. I booked in extra time because it was more of a personal thing than normal.
“They were such a lovely couple and I was honoured to be chosen to do it to be honest.
“I’m happy to have helped because obviously it’s a really awful thing to go through and this makes it look more fun.”