Although breast cancer survivor Sarah Penberthy still faces several challenges, walking past a mirror is no longer one of them, thanks to tattoo artist Eric Catalano.
Penberthy, 40, of Festus underwent a double mastectomy in late 2014 and breast reconstruction a few months later. Throughout her healing period, she was troubled about her appearance.
I felt like an alien, she said. Its hard to explain, but I didnt want to look at myself. I didnt even feel like my real self.
After a tattoo session with Catalano, however, she felt better able to face chemotherapy and other difficulties. She got a decorative tattoo featuring a ships anchor and the words I refuse to sink on her chest, as well as areola and nipples tattooed on her breasts.
Eric is amazing an amazing artist, an amazing human, she said. He is very passionate about his work.
Catalano has developed an international reputation as an artist in the field of paramedical tattoos, the term given to tattoos that cover scars or mimic missing body parts.
He does the work free of charge, completing several each week for people who come from as far away as Ireland to visit his Eternal Ink shop in Hecker, Ill., about 30 miles east of St. Louis.
He said I didnt choose to have (cancer), and he feels guilty charging when God gave him the talent to do this, Penberthy said.
Penberthy, who grew up in the Arnold area and graduated from Seckman High School, already had several tattoos when she and a friend met Catalano at his shop in 2014.
He was doing a $13 tattoo as a Friday the 13th promotion, so we each got a little infinity symbol with the number 13, Penberthy said. It was something kind of fun and silly.
Penberthy, a longtime dance teacher and assistant director of the Dynamic Edge Dance Center in Fenton, was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2014, and she underwent a double mastectomy in January 2015.
Penberthy decided she wanted a good-luck tattoo, so she went back to see Catalano.
I love elephants; the legend is that if the trunk is up it means good luck, she said. I told my husband I wanted to get a tattoo on my finger.
After checking with her doctors, who gave a cautious green light, she went to Eternal Ink and explained what she wanted.
Eric was really sympathetic, Penberthy said. He said if I ever need anything to call him.
She had eight rounds of chemotherapy and 28 radiation treatments over the next six months, and underwent breast reconstruction surgery in September 2015.
When Penberthy was diagnosed with breast cancer, she learned she carried the BRCA2 genetic mutation, known to significantly increase the risk of developing not only breast but also ovarian cancer.
She opted to be proactive about her cancer risk by having a complete hysterectomy just three months later.
If I wouldnt have (already) had kids, it would have definitely been a tough decision. But it was really a no-brainer for me.
Penberthy and her husband of 17 years, Tony, and their daughters Alex, 15, and Makenna, 12, gradually returned to their normal lives.
As time went by, Penberthy healed physically but felt like she needed something more.
I told my hubby I wanted to get something beautiful so that when Id look at myself, Id see that instead of scars.
She explored surgical options but didnt like the risks involved.
I talked to someone who had nipple reconstruction, and she said she wouldnt recommend it, Penberthy said. She said it was complicated, and I didnt want to go through more surgery that might not even work.
I knew you could do 3D nipple tattooing instead of surgery, so we asked Eric, and he said he would be happy to do it.
Once she was healed well enough, Penberthy headed back to Catalanos shop in the spring of 2016 and got the tattoos on her chest.
The difference in her self-image was immediate and profound.
We have a picture Eric took of me when I got to look at it for the first time, and it was so awesome, she said. I felt normal again. I look like myself again.
Back in the fight
In May, Penberthy began to have stomach issues.
I felt a lot of pressure; I couldnt eat more than a few bites at a time, she said. I started running a fever.
She was hospitalized for nearly two weeks and underwent a battery of tests that turned up suspicious nodes, cancerous lesions on the spine and a mass in her abdomen.
The breast cancer had metastasized, she said. I was admitted to the hospital and they found the mass was blocking my small intestine. I had a section of it removed and was in the hospital for another 12 days.
Recovery was going well until a second mass was found blocking her bile ducts.
I have a drain on the outside of my body, she said. Now we are just waiting for chemo and radiation to shrink the mass enough so they can put a stent in so it drains internally, like it should.
Penberthy finally caught a break, though.
I just found out last week my numbers are going down; my tumor marker is going down, she said on Sept. 9. So, after three different treatments. I am finally responding.
While Penberthy still does some work for the dance studio from home, she has not been able to teach, and her children have had to opt for virtual-only school to avoid the risk of contracting COVID-19.
Its been a big adjustment for them, she said. They completely understand, but I know its hard. I feel so sorry for them.
Penberthy said she tries to stay upbeat and be a role model for her children and dance students.
I get a little tired, but Im trying to stay in a good place mentally, she said. Having so many girls look up to me has pushed me to stay positive and to fight and continue to be strong. I work with so many young kids predominantly females and I wanted them to see me handle everything thrown at me in a positive way.
Even though her paramedical tattoos are not visible to most people, Penberthy emphasizes they are not a frivolous gesture.
It might not be for anybody else, but for me it was absolutely necessary, she said. Until you have something taken away that makes you feel not whole, you cant understand.
Cancer took so much away from me. This was something that gave back what I was lacking: the confidence, the feeling that I had at least some control over the situation.
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