When Sue Cook officially hit her fifth year in remission from an aggressive form of breast cancer, she was ready to celebrate.
“After reaching my unexpected five-year remission, I began reclaiming my body to show that cancer doesn’t always have to leave the last mark,” Cook, 62, tells PEOPLE.
Her 2008 diagnosis came after she found a lump on her right breast, and doctors said she had just a 40 percent chance of surviving another five years. Cook started on a six-month course of chemotherapy, after which her breast was removed in a radical mastectomy, where the tissue and muscle are taken away.
“The first mastectomy was life-saving surgery, and I actually remember being disappointed that it couldn’t be done sooner,” she says. “All through the grueling chemotherapy I was aware that the cancer was still in my body — I just wanted my surgeon to rid my body of it.”
One year later, Cook and her doctors decided to remove the left breast as well to eliminate the chance of recurrence. While mastectomies may make some women feel less feminine, Cook says hers made her feel free.
“I felt uncannily euphoric. It may well have been partly the drugs but I just kept thinking that my unwelcome ‘friend’ had been kicked out!” Cook says. “I was obviously sore and sickly from the anesthetics, but I was one step closer to a life that didn’t fully revolve around cancer and its treatment.”
The thought of reconstruction didn’t appeal to Cook: “Taking a flap from my back with muscle and then implants to recreate what is no longer there was a step too far for me – it wouldn’t be me as I am now.” But honoring the scars as art was the perfect fit for Cook, the chief examiner for foundation art and design at the University of the Arts London.
She modeled her design off a lacy pattern she had seen in India.
“I wanted to almost re-create the feeling I used to get when I wore beautiful lace underwear,” Cook says. “Many women will be able to relate to that feeling, it gives a boost of confidence — it’s like a hidden secret, an inner smile.”
The entire design took 30 hours, but she says it was “worth every minute.”
“It’s difficult to explain how happy my tattoo makes me feel. To me it is a thing of beauty and every morning when I see it — it’s like it’s for the first time — it puts a smile on my face,” Cook says.
While she doesn’t suggest a tattoo for everyone, Cook advises fellow breast cancer survivors to celebrate their health.
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“I’m not advocating that every woman who has gone through breast cancer should have a tattoo. But it’s important to explore every avenue,” she says. “You now have options; you can regain control and make your own decisions. Above all don’t forget to find some way to celebrate and rejoice in your own victory.”
“Cancer doesn’t always have to leave the last mark!”