Sue Cook, a 62-year-old British woman, is a serious badass. When Cook found out she had breast cancer in 2008, she took the day off from work and ate cake with her husband. She was told she had a 40 percent chance of being alive five years later. So when Cook survived and hit the point of 5-year remission, she celebrated by covering her double mastectomy scars with a chest tattoo. Now, Cook is inspiring breast cancer survivors everywhere with her body art. Her message for them is clear: "Cancer doesn't always have to leave the last mark."
Cook first realized she had cancer in November 2008. She'd noticed a change in the shape of her breast during a routine self-exam and made an appointment with her doctor, who fast-tracked her to a consultant. Cook soon learned she had inflammatory, locally advanced breast cancer in both breasts, and that it was aggressive. Her consultant told her that her best treatment option would be six months of chemotherapy, followed by a radical double mastectomy (where both the breast tissue and part of the muscle are removed). From there, she would endure a course of radiotherapy every day for five weeks.
"I decided that a tattoo would turn my scars into art," Cook tells SELF. "My body had been through enough and it was time to celebrate the new me...Now, every morning I can wake up to see [something] beautiful." Cook says she'd already experienced a "tough enough battle," so she opted out of wearing prostheses or getting a breast reconstruction. She wanted to acknowledge her fight—while transforming her scars into something that would symbolize her victory and her future. "During treatment, you're [constantly] told what to do," Cook says. "But this was me, making a decision for myself about my body. It's empowering."
Cook works as a chief examiner for the University of the Arts, London, so she's long had a connection to art and design. She felt inspired by some of her travels in India, so she incorporated from of the mandala patterns she'd seen in a tattoo to fit her chest. "I wanted to almost re-create the feeling I used to get when I wore beautiful lace lingerie," 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." And Cook has combined love of art with her battle with cancer another way: an art auction raising money for cancer research. She'll be selling the work from designers and artists she knows in an online charity auction called "Curating For A Cure."
"It’s difficult to explain how happy my tattoo makes me feel," she says. "Every morning when I see it, it’s like it’s for the first time. It puts a smile on my face." The tattoo took a total of 30 hours to create, but Cook says it was worth every minute. "It’s almost like finding the missing piece to a jigsaw" she says. "I'm whole again!"