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Author Ellen Stimson Shares the Tattoo that Healed Her Breast Cancer

in Nonfiction by

Welcome to Personal Ink, the monthly column where we showcase authors and their tattoos. A tattoo is more than just an image – from a message of love to an act of rebellion, there’s always some kind of meaning behind what we permanently etch into our skin.

This month we’re featuring Ellen Stimson, whose tattoo commemorates her beating breast cancer. Stimson is the author of Mud Season and Good Grief, two memoirs about her family moving to Vermont and the chaos that ensues. She also has an upcoming book filled with recipes, decorations, and stories, called An Old Fashioned Christmas: Sweet Traditions for the Home and Hearth, available through Countryman Press in November. In her own words, here’s how Stimson ended up with a lion on her ankle:

Ellen Stimson


Outside the sun was shining, but in this little room, with music blaring, thumping really, and the kaleidoscopic art covering the walls, it all felt darker and smaller than it probably was. I might have technically been a grown up at 33, but I sure didn’t feel like one. I mostly felt shy and claustrophobic. I held out my hand and introduced myself and began to explain. The guy’s name was Matt. He was 20-something with a shaved head. His thick muscular arms, emphasized by a tight T-shirt, were covered in tattoos. At 6’3” he had a commanding presence and so when he asked me to show him I did. I crossed my arms and lifted my blouse over my head. Then I unclasped my bra and let my breasts spill out. This might be where you’d expect the kinky sex to begin. But you’d be wrong.

I had been diagnosed with breast cancer two years earlier. That week I’d been given a clean bill of health. The only obvious sign of the carnage that had marked the last couple of years were the small dark green marks the hospital tech had tattooed on my breast to make the radiation pinpointing easier. And can I just tell you? Those green dots drove me crazy. They were a grim reminder. I had even changed my routine from baths to showers, gotten a dimmer on the overhead light, and moved mirrors around, just to avoid having to see them when I was in the tub. They could be removed but the last thing I wanted right then was another trip to a doctor or hospital. Instead I decided I’d get them tattooed. Why not? I was feeling a little reckless. This was how I, Midwest mother of two, businesswoman who carried a briefcase and wore a David Yurman bracelet, had wound up in this loud, garish little shop alone with this man. I showed him, he said sure and kindly told me I could put my blouse back on while he mixed the ink that would match my skin tones. A sweet, gentle tattoo artist. Who knew?


Ellen's tattoo cropped


At first I would be substituting pink dots for the green ones, but eventually he promised they would blend in and you’d never know they were there. I’d worn my special earrings. They were the same ones I had worn to chemo. Dangly and silver, they had a little rendition of a mountain lion etched in copper. This lion had brought me plenty of good luck already and as he mixed and matched I decided I was going to wear that cougar for the rest of my life. It wasn’t long before I had a little turquoise mountain lion on my ankle. I loved her then and I love her still. She has been here protecting me ever since. I’m 52 now.

So far, so good.


Rachel Carter grew up surrounded by trees and snow and mountains. She graduated from the University of Vermont and Columbia University, where she received her MFA in nonfiction writing. She is the author of the So Close to You series with Harperteen. These days you can find her working on her next novel in the woods of Vermont.

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