Dean Kahn

Woman chooses roses and hummingbirds over mastectomy scars

Some people get a tattoo to convey rebellion, express their artistic self or carry out a drunken impulse.

Raynell Zuni got a tattoo to feel more like a woman again.

Six years ago, Zuni, 60, learned she had breast cancer. One breast had a large tumor and the other had abnormalities, so she had both removed, an option chosen by 20,000 women a year in the U.S.

“It was kind of overwhelming,” said Zuni, a Lummi tribal member who is a senior policy adviser at the tribe’s office that deals with sovereignty and treaty issues. “There weren’t a lot of women in the community going through the double mastectomy process.”

Both sides of her chest were concave after the surgery. Enlarging her skin to hold prosthetic breasts wouldn’t work, so tissue was removed from her abdomen and used to build replacement breasts. The procedure – called a transverse rectus abdominus myocutaneous, or TRAM, flap reconstruction – succeeded, but it left additional scars.

“I didn’t want to see myself in the mirror without clothes on,” Zuni said.

Her double mastectomy came nearly three decades after she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer and had a hysterectomy.

Raised in Bellingham, Zuni has been a bank executive and a housing finance expert. She also worked for what she called “two appropriation cycles and an impeachment” during the Clinton administration, helping to coordinate White House activities with state, tribal and local leaders across the country.

She’s smart and accomplished, yet her run-ins with cancer left her in need of some serious soul-searching.

“My uterus is gone, my breasts are gone,” Zuni said. “That doesn’t define me as a woman, but it takes a long time to get over.”

Then she met Shelly James.

Student artist turned tattoo artist

A Bellingham native, James earned a degree in studio art with a focus on painting at Western Washington University in 2010, the same year Zuni was diagnosed with breast cancer.

After graduation, James, 29, moved to Alaska and then to Georgia, where she honed her skill as a tattoo artist before returning to Bellingham and going to work last year at Chameleon Ink.

One of James’ regular customers, Zuni’s son, mentioned that his mother had a double mastectomy and was thinking about having a large tattoo designed to cover her surgical scars. James had tattooed over people’s scars before, but never scars from a mastectomy, let alone a double one.

Still, she jumped at the chance to meet with Zuni. James has had family members and a family friend confront cancer recently, so she’s keen on helping women with cancer who are interested in tattoos as a way to regain pride in their appearance.

“My mission is to have women reclaim their positive body image,” James said. “Your body is basically like a canvas. Would you rather have an ugly scar or a beautiful tattoo?”

Zuni and James met for an initial consultation in early June and immediately clicked.

“I had a lot of trust in her right away,” Zuni said.

Zuni, who is a fan of fashion designer Betsey Johnson, wanted a tattoo that was “something really girly, with an edge.”

The “girly” part is evident. Zuni’s breasts are now covered with pink roses and green foliage. Two hummingbirds hover face-to-face over her sternum. Below the hummingbirds, a pink ribbon loops into the shape of a small heart.

“The ‘edge’ part is the size of it,” Zuni said. “It’s bold.”

Cooperative process

Zuni isn’t new to tattoos. Before her mastectomy she had a tattoo of an arrowhead and eagle over her heart. That image disappeared during her mastectomy, so the idea of a tattoo after her surgery wasn’t a new concept.

Editor’s note: This video contains images of exposed breasts.

Before meeting with James, Zuni looked at tattoo designs online and conferred with her artistic older sister Raydean Finkbonner, also of Lummi.

After Zuni and James met, James hand-drew a design, then converted the drawing to a stencil to guide the initial inking on Zuni’s chest. They conferred and revised the image, making it larger to better cover the scars and changing the two birds to hummingbirds. They also discussed the fill-in colors.

The first two inking sessions were held a day apart, June 10 and 11.

“When she looked in the mirror and saw this gorgeous feminine design that obscured large deep scars and made her look beautiful again for the first time in years, the reaction was very moving,” James said in an email. “She cried as I held back tears.”

The third and final inking session was Friday, July 1, to fill in the ribbon and the hummingbirds.

Multiple messages

Zuni said her tattoo, like most works of art, has layers of meaning. At one level, it’s a personal statement with one beneficiary.

“Me, 100 percent me,” Zuni said. “I felt like I shouldn’t have to look at my scars anymore.”

Beyond that, she hopes more women will consider tattoos as an option after surgery.

“Do what makes you happy,” she said. “Figure it out.”

Zuni also hopes her experience will inspire women, especially Native American women, to talk more openly about cancer.

Zuni said her family tree has been traced back nine generations, yet she doesn’t know what her grandparents and great-grandparents died from. She has undergone genetic testing for the risk of breast cancer, and she said the results, and even women just talking more about causes of death, can help future generations understand health issues they might face in the future.

“We can support each other,” she said. “We can talk about it.”

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291