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Tattoo artist helps breast cancer survivor rediscover her beauty

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In the basement of a downtown tattoo shop in an impromptu act, two women sang “Lean on Me” over the buzz of a needle.

It was an apt song for the situation.

Artist Jess Hobbs tattooed over local resident Dena Miller’s scars. Christine Bordeaux, owner of Blackbeard Tattoo Co., sang along with Miller.

The three women came together recently, bound by breast cancer, art, business and friendship.

Miller’s diagnosis 
When the doctor seems to find it difficult to look you in the eye, you know it’s bad, Miller said.

For Miller, the HER2-double positive breast cancer diagnosis created mostly disbelief.

She’d had a mammogram just a few months before the diagnosis, but when her dog stepped on her chest and it hurt, Miller went back to the doctor.

The cancer was aggressive, but after the initial shock, Miller made a plan.

More to the story

—Bordeaux’s parents helped her open the business.

“My parents actually helped me start this,” she said. “It was awesome, especially because I started getting tattoos when I was 16, and up to the time I was 25 my dad always gave me hell.”

Now, both her parents have tattoos—something Bordeaux said she never expected.

—A couple of years ago, Miller found out she had kidney cancer. Although she’d been able to stay somewhat calm during her breast cancer diagnosis, she took the second cancer harder, she said. But she’s also recovered from that now, she said.

—It’s becoming a trend for women to use tattoos to cover their breast cancer scars.Some artists specialize in recreating nipples for breast cancer survivors. That’s something Hobbs aspires to, she said.

She didn’t feel like she was going to die, so she started weighing her options. She needed chemotherapy and radiation, and could have either a single or double mastectomy.

Miller didn’t want to risk letting the cancer spread to her lymph nodes, spine or brain.

“So I figured [go] radical—take them both; they’re just boobs,” she said Friday before her third full tattoo session with Hobbs.

Miller had more sadness when her hair fell out than about losing her breasts, she said. Without them, her back never felt better.

Anyway, she thought she’d be able to have reconstructive surgery. And maybe she could have, but it would have required major work, such as taking a muscle from her back and skin from other parts of her body, she said.

“I couldn’t see putting myself through that after everything I’d already been through,” she said.

So she was left with scars, a mostly flat chest and lopsided deposits of skin on her sides.

Miller loves to go to lakes and water parks. But her new shape meant that wearing a bathing suit wasn’t easy. It didn’t stay in place well. The deposits on the side fell out. Fake breast inserts didn’t work, she said.

Shortly after her surgery, she went on a vacation to Savannah, Georgia, which she had already planned before her diagnosis.

While she was there, she felt like everyone might be looking at her. She felt like “a freak.”

And when she’d glance down at her own body, she felt uncomfortable. So she thought it must make others sick, she said.

“The scarring and the mess that was left made me feel like I wasn’t a woman,” she said.

One day, a relative joked that Miller—who works in a male-dominated industry—had always wanted to be a man, and now, without breasts, she was one.

“That kind of hit me and that’s when it started bothering me,” she said. “That was a moment for me.”

But she’d seen something on Pinterest that gave her hope—photos of tattoos that covered scars from breast cancer.

So when she hit the five-year mark of being cancer-free, she decided she would get her chest tattooed; she’d turn something unattractive and painful into something beautiful and celebratory.

Now when she looks at her chest, she sees something “gorgeous.” The scars are barely visible beneath a central purple blossom that extends into a large, multicolored but muted garden filled with flowers, plants and leaves.

“It makes me more comfortable in my own skin,” she said of the tattoo. “I almost like it better than what I had before.”

Finding Jess
Miller said she did a lot of research to find the right artist. She found Hobbs at Blackbeard Tattoo Co., loved her work and hoped she would be up for the challenge.

Hobbs was up for it and had a personal connection to breast cancer, which made the work more special.

“It was actually pretty upsetting to me when I first saw it,” Hobbs said. “My grandmother had breast cancer when she was younger and she’s the most amazing, awesome lady in the world. She got it again and said, ‘I can’t go through that again.'”

Hobbs’ grandmother opted not to go through with more treatment. The cancer spread to her liver, and Hobbs watched one of the “staples” of her family deteriorate, she said.

Blackbeard Tattoo Co. artist Jess Hobbs created this image to help breast cancer survivor Dena Miller cover scars from a double mastectomy. (Photo: Jess Hobbs)

“It means a lot for me to help [Miller],” Hobbs said. “I just wanted to give her something to be proud of.”

Blackbeard Tattoo Co.
A couple of years in, Bordeaux said business is going well.

The first year of opening a business is always a little shaky and tattoo shops take some time to secure roots, Bordeaux said. But it’s feeling more secure.

The artists set their own rates and the shop gets a percentage.

Bordeaux, Miller and Hobbs said that talent helps set Blackbeard Tattoo Co. apart. Each person is a true artist, Bordeaux said.

Hobbs originally wanted to illustrate children’s books.

“It’s such a gamble to go into the art field confidently and feel like you’ll make a living,” Hobbs said. “And I knew this way, I could have fun and also [paint and draw] on the side.”

Bordeaux has six artists who are independent contractors but they are also like family, she said.

The team does a “tattoo Thanksgiving” at Bordeaux’s parents’ house.

“My mom is a tattoo mama; she calls everybody her little tattoo babies,” Bordeaux said. “We are all about family here.”

The family atmosphere is present at the 29 Patten Parkway shop, where the artists aim to make everyone feel comfortable.

Miller’s Friday session seemed to illustrate that effort.

Hobbs asked where Miller’s “feisty” aunt—who had come before as moral support—was for this session.

Miller brought Hobbs a gift from Miller’s daughter. It was a device that would allow Hobbs to take credit cards.

And as Hobbs tattooed Miller, working to turn evidence of suffering into a work of art, the three women talked, laughed, sang along with the radio and bragged on each other.

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