In 2016, Grace Lombardo received a devastating breast cancer diagnosis that resulted in a double mastectomy. As the mother-of-three struggled to accept her new appearance and the sense that she’d lost control over her own body, Lombardo decided to get a mastectomy tattoo across her breasts and ribcage to cover the scars the surgery left behind. This October, Lombardo stars in a Breast Cancer Awareness campaign for hot-tools brand GHD, which has empowered her to tell her story and show her tattoo to people all over the world. Two years after her mastectomy tattoo, Lombardo tells us, in her own words, how it’s changed her life. The following interview was told to Rachel Lubitz and edited for length and clarity.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer on April 19, 2016. I was 35 years old, had three kids under the age of seven, and was in the best physical shape of my life. I don’t carry any of the known genetic markers — I’m just one of those people who randomly got the disease young with no discernible reason.
29 days later, on May 18, I had a double mastectomy. I didn’t allow myself to do too much research. I just thought, This is what’s coming for me. That was hard, because I’m the type of person who craves control. I just had to let go completely and trust in the medical team. I was able to keep my nipples, so when they took the bandages off after surgery, my breasts kind of looked the same. Looking in the mirror was a different story — that’s when you see the gory details of all the stitching and the drains hanging off the sides of your body.
After a mastectomy, you have no physical sensation or nerve receptors in your breasts at all. I didn’t touch my breasts or interact with them for months; they were just off-limits to me. They feel really cold, because there's no blood flowing to them anymore — no one told me that would happen. It took a while for me to truly realise the devastation of losing my breasts. When I did, months down the line, it was really tragic. It felt like a real loss of control and my femininity.
Around two weeks after I had my reconstructive surgery, there was a front-page article in The Chicago Tribune about David Allen, who is known for his beautiful mastectomy tattoos. Multiple family members and friends sent me the link to the story. I went to his website, looked through the pictures, and instantly knew I was going to do it, even though I had never had a tattoo before — I was just a regular suburban woman who drives a minivan. This was something I was going to be able to choose to do for myself, to cover up this area of my body that I hated to look at, and I was going to put something there that made me happy.
David makes it really easy: You send him a photograph of the area you want tattooed and you point out what you do and do not like, then he picks designs that he thinks will best achieve your goal. The one I ended up picking is an old French sketch of multiple roses that are towards the end of their lives. There was something about the metaphor there: It’s so beautiful, but if you really look at it, the thorns show that there are hard, pointy, scary things that happen, even to the most beautiful flower.
I had my tattoo done on the one-year anniversary of my mastectomy: May 18, 2017. That day held every emotion that I have available to me. We did it in about four hours. During the tattooing process, we talked about how I felt that my body had been mutilated, and had turned into something that was like a traitor to me. It was wild to sit in that chair and think that, just a little over a year ago, I didn’t see anything coming. Now I have a short, spiky blonde mohawk, new breasts that don’t do anything, and I’m getting a huge tattoo. I cried multiple times from the power of it all, and at the end, I tearfully thanked David for giving me a piece of my body back. I really felt that way.
Part of getting the tattoo was saying, No way, cancer. Your time is up. I’m doing something for me in the place you tried to destroy. The great thing is that when I look down at it now, I don’t always think about the cancer. I figured I always would, but now, sometimes I look at it and think, That is so dope, and I’m so glad it’s there. I’m always shopping for shirts that have big arm holes, looking for ways to show it off, and it makes me feel cool whenever I’m at the gym and it’s peeking out of a sports bra.
My tattoo represents the ability to show other women that we have options and we can take back control of our bodies. There’s a million things I can’t do, but I can show this off and tell the story.
That’s part of why this partnership with GHD was so exciting for me. David signed on with them for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, because they wanted to showcase mastectomy tattoos and women who have had them. They asked him who he’s tattooed who’d be willing to do this with them, and he said my name. They called me and I was like, 'You got the wrong girl. I’ve got horrible hair.’ They were like, ‘That’s not what it’s about. We want a powerful woman who’s reclaimed her body with this tattoo.’ That’s all I needed to hear.
As part of this campaign, I’m doing photoshoots with 30 people in the room who tell me I look beautiful and are listening to my story. It’s been such a magical experience for a person who’s had their ego taken away from them about how they look. I’ve met women all over the world now who aren’t comfortable telling people they’ve had a mastectomy — not even family sometimes. When they see what this tattoo has done for me and the fact that I’m willing to show it in a beauty campaign, it seems to transfer power over to them. That feels like a gift to me. I’ve said it before: Whether I’m done with breast cancer or I get it again, this alone was worth it.
It’s hard to put into words the power this tattoo has given me. In my neighbourhood, everyone knew me as the poor mom who has cancer. Everyone was having to explain to their children why my children’s mom was bald. But now my identity is the badass mastectomy tattoo lady, and that feels 100% correct. I have this side of me that’s almost like my alter ego, the badass survivor who carries the art of war on my body. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more like myself.