What Are Radiation Therapy Tattoos?

Small Tattoos Guide Radiation Therapy to its Target

Doctor talking with patient in office
Hero Images/Getty Images

Question: What Are Radiation Tattoos?

I am going to be starting radiation therapy for breast cancer. I've heard that I'll be getting radiation tattoos. I've never had a tattoo before. What are they going to look like and how are they going to tattoo me? Is it going to hurt? Will the tattoos be permanent?

Radiation Therapy Tattoos

Before having breast radiation, you may need to have skin markings or radiation tattoos put on your breast skin.

These marks help your radiation therapist accurately aim the radiation at your treatment area. You may be having five days or six weeks of radiation, and every treatment should be aimed at the same place in order to prevent recurrence and to spare healthy tissue.

The reason for the tattooing is a bit like using a bulls-eye target for archery, darts, or rifle practice. Having a clear target area to aim at improves results.

Blue Tattoos For Treatment Safety

Radiation tattoos will be blue or black, and will be created using a drop of ink and a very slender needle. You might feel the needle stick, which should hurt no more than a mosquito bite. These tattoos won't wash off, so you will be able to shower or swim anytime during treatment without losing these important markings. However, if a skin marker is used instead of a permanent tattoo, be careful to keep these marks dry until the end of treatment.

Your breast radiation tattoos will be tiny -- about the size of a freckle, or 1 millimeter in diameter. There will be at least four tattooed dots, each marking one corner of the area to be radiated. Having these skin marks in place helps speed setup for each treatment as well as increases the safety and accuracy of your radiation.

Radiation tattoos will be created during your treatment simulation before treatments begin.

Radiation Tattoos are Your Marks Of Survival

Your radiation tattoos will be permanent, and they can serve as a reminder that you are a breast cancer survivor. These tattoos also provide a visual reference for other doctors who may need to know where you received radiation.

If your chances of recurrence are very low and your oncologist agrees, you could consider having surgery or laser treatment to remove the tattoos. See a plastic surgeon or dermatologist about tattoo removal, if you plan on removing these skin marks.

Many women feel that their radiation tattoos are marks of survival and strength rather than something they want to have removed. As tattoos have become more common for women of all ages, you won't be the only tattooed lady at the swimming pool. You can keep them as they are and not feel out of place.

You may even decide to turn your tattoos into a creative design to celebrate your survival.

If you've never been inked before, this can be the incentive to take the plunge. You can add a design around the small therapy tattoos to express your personal style and make them meaningful.

Sources:

How Is Breast Cancer Treated? External beam radiation. American Cancer Society. Updated: 1/14/2016.

Radiation Therapy for Cancer: Questions and Answers. National Cancer Institute. Updated: 06/30/2010.

Continue Reading