When Stephanie Kelly learned that she had tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, which signals a strong likelihood of developing cancer, and decided to get a preventive double mastectomy, she stayed strong by thinking of another heroic female — Wonder Woman.
“I have always loved Wonder Woman, and during this time I began to joke that I was going to be like Wonder Woman and be strong and unfazed by the things I needed to do that scared me,” Kelly, 42, tells PEOPLE. “Friends and family sent me little gifts of Wonder Woman figurines, cards, clothes, even a full robe. It all helped me feel stronger and it was a way to feel all the love and support I had and bring that along with me.”
Though Kelly was already extremely tough. The mom of four has battled other health issues — gastroparesis, a digestive tract illness; lingering injuries from a car accident and fibromyalgia. Plus, she’s watched her own mother face breast cancer — twice. Her mother’s history of breast cancer and the fact that she has the BRCA1 gene mutation is what pushed Kelly to get tested herself. It was also why Kelly didn’t bat an eye when her test came back positive.
“With the family history and just my general luck about things, I’d always expected breast cancer to play some role in my life,” she says. “It would have been a great surprise if it had been negative, but I completely expected to hear it was positive. The genetic counselor joked that she’d never had someone be so calm and matter-of-fact about positive results before.”
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“They had been a part of my body I’d always liked,” Kelly says. “I liked the way they made me look and I loved that they had fed my four children as babies. But when I put those feelings up against the fear I had of getting sick, needing chemotherapy, not being able to care for my family or worse, it really seemed to be a small sacrifice.”
Kelly didn’t really consider breast reconstruction — with her other health issues, it wasn’t worth the additional surgeries and doctors visits. Instead, she decided to celebrate her scars with a Wonder Woman tattoo, the symbol that helped her through.
“Along with Wonder Woman, I was also drawn to images of the phoenix and how the bird reconstructs itself from the ashes of it’s former body,” Kelly explains. “I brought both of these ideas to my tattoo artist, Miss Jamie at Lovely Monkey in Whitmore Lake, Michigan, and she designed my amazing chest piece. I absolutely love it!”
Kelly says the tattoo completely changed how she thinks of her body, for the better.
“With my other health issues, I’d never really been very confident of my body,” she says. “But now, I already don’t fit the mold of what the world expects, so there is a sense of freedom that comes with that. But then on top of this, I have this image of strength, power and fearlessness across my chest and that continues to build me up. I see my scars now as entirely positive.”