Developing fluid buildup caused by lymphedema (tissue swelling) is common following lymph node removal for breast cancer. Some people notice that this symptom worsens after trauma, such as a skin injury, which may lead you to wonder whether it’s a good idea to get a tattoo after having lymph nodes removed.
Some people do fine with tattoos after lymph node removal, while others experience complications. Here’s what you should know before making your decision.
The lymph nodes are part of the immune system. If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor may perform a lymph node biopsy to see if cancer cells are spreading. Sometimes surgeons remove only the sentinel lymph node (the one most likely to have tumor cells). Other times, they must remove additional lymph nodes in the groin or armpits. The more lymph nodes you have removed, the higher your risk of infection and swelling. That’s where getting a tattoo can become a concern.
Getting a tattoo — whether for artistic or cosmetic reasons — always comes with risks, even for someone who doesn’t have cancer or lymph node surgery. For tattoos to be permanent, the tattoo artist must pierce the top layer of the skin. These tiny punctures produce mini injuries that become temporarily inflamed while they heal. Sometimes, the healing process doesn’t go smoothly.
It’s crucial to find a tattoo parlor that follows good safety precautions, especially if your history of lymph node removal increases your risk of poor healing, swelling, or infection. Check on your state’s licensing regulations and research the shop and tattoo artist to screen for past violations.
Tattoo artists should always wash their hands and use a fresh pair of gloves for tattooing. They should also use a new set of tattoo needles and tubes from sealed packaging and sterilize any reusable equipment with commercial disinfectant, bleach, or heat sterilization.
Tattoo equipment that isn’t properly sterilized can spread bloodborne diseases like hepatitis. Don’t be afraid to ask questions before scheduling your tattoo session. If you feel comfortable sharing, you can let the tattoo artist know you have health concerns and must ensure proper safety measures.
One MyBCTeam member encouraged others to do this, noting, “I would make sure your tattooist knows about your lymph node removal. They will do less at a time to prevent issues like lymphedema.”
Potential complications after getting a tattoo include:
In addition, some people are allergic to the tattoo pigments used to make colored tattoo ink, leading to itchy rashes that can persist for years.
It usually takes about two weeks for tattoos to heal. During this time, you’ll want to be extra careful to avoid sun exposure and swimming and to diligently clean and moisturize the area.
Discussions about tattoos after lymph node removal are abundant on MyBCTeam. While your experience may not be the same as someone else’s, it’s helpful to get the perspective of others who have been there.
A member asked, “Can a five-year post-double-mastectomy, lymph-node-removal breast cancer patient have a tattoo?”
One member responded, “I believe so, as long as you’re not getting the tattoo on the arm where your lymph nodes were removed. Even after five years, you can still get lymphedema on the arm where you had the lymph node dissection.”
Another shared, “I’m a 21-year stage 3 breast cancer survivor with over 20 lymph nodes removed. I was told I can never have anything done on that side, and I still get severe lymphedema to this day.”
In another thread, a member wrote, “Question for anyone that has gotten an arm tattoo post lymph dissection on the affected side. … Did it cause you to develop lymphedema in that arm? I really want to finish my sleeve and don’t want to move to the other arm yet.”
One member shared their experience. “I have a half sleeve (from wrist to elbow) on the side where I had lymph nodes removed. I waited six years after surgery. My artist is aware of my medical issues, and we are working on this for a maximum of 90 minutes per session. We started about seven months ago, and I have one session left. After one of the sessions, when I had a lot of color done, I experienced some really bad itching and burning, but no swelling. The issues lasted about 12 hours and stopped on their own.”
Only your oncologist can advise whether getting a tattoo is safe. The tattoo procedure puts additional strain on the lymphatic system, so it’s important to wait until your body has recovered from treatment before getting a tattoo.
Depending on the extent of your lymph node removal and other health history, your provider may give you the go-ahead or encourage you to hold off. Whether you’re considering mastectomy tattoos as part of your breast reconstruction or you’re getting a tattoo as a creative gesture, it’s always smart to talk through your concerns with your health care team.
On MyBCTeam — the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones — more than 64,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their tips with others who understand life with breast cancer.
Did you experience any side effects from body art or mastectomy tattoos? How has lymph node dissection impacted your breast cancer journey? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.