Breast cancer survivor
with gusto, tattoos
Linda Horton says tattoos aren't for everybody, but celebrations should be
By Wayne Wood
Linda Horton sports her bluebird tattoo,
the symbol of her 10-year survival of breast cancer.
Linda Horton’s body bears the marks of breast cancer. “Cancer therapy leaves a body that looks like a road map of Kansas,” she says. “Scars from surgery, radiation, ports, reconstruction, biopsies and a myriad of other invasions leave us ‘damaged.’”
But Horton, a laboratory manager at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, has chosen to celebrate her recent 10th anniversary of cancer survival the same way she celebrated her fifth anniversary —by putting a permanent mark on her body of her own choosing: a tattoo.
Horton’s right ankle sports the tattoo from five years ago, a pink ribbon, the symbol of breast cancer awareness. This year she had her left ankle adorned with a bluebird holding a pink ribbon, a design that was drawn by Horton’s friend Pam Martin, also a lab manager at VICC, whom Horton credits with lifting her spirits during the tough times.
And, no doubt about it, Horton has had more than her share of tough times.
Her son Jason was killed in a tractor accident in 1990 at the age of 18, and three years later her son Robbie died in a single car accident at 23. And almost exactly a year later, and at Christmastime to boot, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She found a lump in her left breast during a self-exam, and got the diagnosis on Dec. 22, 1995.
“That was a real ho-ho Christmas,” Horton remembers wryly.
She had four rounds of chemotherapy, followed by a mastectomy in April, four additional rounds of chemotherapy, and reconstruction. Somewhere along the way, something started to change in her mind. After the deaths of her sons, she had been depressed for months, had trouble eating, had trouble doing anything at all, and dropped to an unhealthy 105 pounds.
But during the cancer treatment, Horton had what she calls an epiphany.
“I realized that life isn’t fair and I had been through worse,” she remembers telling herself. “I can go through this.”
So with the help of her friends, her husband Dave, her daughter Bronwyn, and her medical team, she did.
“Having cancer has changed the way I think about everything,” she says. Her goals in life changed. She had been managing a lab working on HIV research, but soon after her one-year anniversary as a survivor she switched to the cancer center. She believes that having a lab manager who is also a cancer survivor might, in some intangible way, spur researchers on.
“I can put a face on their research,” she says simply. They are driven, dedicated people and I’m so very proud to be there as their “one-woman cheerleader.”
Even her interest in politics changed. Now she researches the voting records of politicians to know who actually votes to fund research, and doesn’t mind lobbying the ones who are deficient in their dedication to the cause to change their minds.
There’s something else that 10-year bluebird on her left ankle is there to remind her of.
“This has been the best 10 years of my life,” she says. “I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing. I’m an extremely happy person.”
She is happy with her family; last year she and Dave celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a big party.
She is happy in her job at VICC, and says it is especially gratifying to see the new drugs and therapies coming that will be able to treat cancer without some of the side effects such as nausea and hair loss.
“It’s happening so fast that I’m really hopeful,” she says. “Research costs a lot, but it is money well used.”
And something else that she has had reason to be happy about in the past few days is the growing success of the local version of Race for the Cure, the annual fund-raiser for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Horton and Martin were the co-chairs for the VICC team.
“Three years ago we had 35 [participants],” she says. “This year we got
“I’m kind of proud,” she adds.
Translation: “I am VERY proud.”
Part of the way Horton has worked to grow the team is to send out a letter, telling prospective members what it feels like to be a cancer survivor.
“I’m proud of my scars,” she wrote this year. “I’m humbled to be able to participate the tiniest bit in all this exciting research. I celebrate every birthday with gusto. And I mourn my friends who lost the battle. But I’m also proud of my tattoos! They are a symbol of hope and encouragement for me.”
Not just for her.
Horton tells a story about the tattoo artist, a young man who injected the ink forming the bluebird and ribbon. As he worked, he, Horton, and a substantial cadre of friends who accompanied her to the tattoo parlor talked about the symbolism of the design and the significance of the anniversary.
And when it came time to pay him, despite her pleading, he refused to take payment.
“He said his mom had died of breast cancer,” Horton remembers.
“That really hit home because my daughter is now considered at higher risk for breast cancer because of my disease. Until the day that cancer is either cured, or treatable as a managed disease, I will continue to advocate for the research dollars, continue to support the cancer researchers, and continue to keep my eyes on the new advances on the horizon.”
She says she’ll also continue to flaunt her tattoos, “and laugh, and love, and live every minute of every day to its fullest.”