Dana-Farber Started a Cancer Tattoo Project

The open gallery lets people share their stories through creative expression.


Tattoo image provided by Kim Ring.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) representatives Googled “cancer-related tattoos” one day, and could not believe the hundreds of thousands of queries that popped up. This led DFCI reps to then crowdsource the inquiry on their own Facebook page, asking for people to share stories and tattoos that honor loved ones or that recognize personal battles with cancer. DFCI’s social media engagement officer, Kathryn Davies, says that they were overwhelmed by the response from both patients and family members, and received more than 300 replies to just that initial post.

“In the process, it became clear people express their creativity in so many different ways, so the scope of the project was widened to include all manifestations of creative coping,” she says.

DFCI launched the gallery called, “Coping with Cancer through Creative Expression” on March 19 and so far has received 90 submissions. The gallery was supposed to only run through April 2, but reps say it will now run indefinitely due to its popularity.

“The request for tattoo stories was originally posted in hopes of garnering 10 to 12 stories for a blog post, but instead blossomed into an opportunity for people to share their creative expressions with others,” Davies says, adding that she was also amazed by the number of people who thanked Dana-Farber for giving them the opportunity to share their stories. “It seems that there is something powerful about being able to honor the memory of a loved one and to share a personal story in a public way.”

And it’s not just tattoos. There’s art projects, dances, blog posts, and other creative expressions with one common thread: coping with the destruction that cancer often leaves in its wake.

While scrolling through the gallery, we came across a familiar name: Kim Ring, a Wakefield-based publicist (not involved with the project professionally) who says that she got the tattoo in memory of her father, who passed away a few days before Christmas 2013. “The tattoo [image above] will help me remember to focus on the love I had, not the minutes that he had left. When you have a loved one going through cancer, all you can think about is time. It consumes you,” she says. “I must look at my tattoo 1,000 times a day, and remember all the good times and all the love I shared with my Dad. It reminds me what is important in life, and that love isn’t measured in time.”

Ring’s father was diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago. The Army vet and retired Cambridge Police Lieutenant had faced and beat cancer before (prostate, skin, and throat) but this time, Ring says, was going to be very different. After surgery, rounds of chemo, and fighting with everything he had, he was losing his battle. 

“I was sad. I was angry. [But one day] I looked up at the sky and it was this breathtaking blue. For the first time since my dad had been diagnosed, I started thinking of memories we had, the good times we’d spent as a family, the first time we had a beer together, and the last time he was able to tap dance in the kitchen to make us laugh,” Ring says. “That’s when it became clear. I drove to a random tattoo parlor, and put ‘Love’ on my wrist to remind me to start measuring my life by how much love I feel, not by how many minutes go by. My father never liked any of my tattoos, but when I got to the house that night and showed him my new one, he approved.”

Here are some anonymous stories, provided by Dana-Farber. To see these stories and more, click on the link in the first sentence.:

A tattoo can never represent her 34 years of life or her 6.5 years of battling breast cancer, but it sure does something to lift my spirits and remind me of her every day. The photo is of my tattoo and the planner I took her handwriting from. People ask me about it all the time and even though it is hard to relive the passing of my sister, I enjoy sharing the story of her wonderful life. Thank you for taking the time to read this and for all that Dana Farber was able to do for my sister.”

So I have two tattoos that would qualify here. The one on the left is for my Dad. He passed away from lung cancer and was a huge Red Sox fan. The two baseball bats have his birth and death dates and his initials are below in the Red Sox font. The tattoo on the right is a work in progress. To honor my Dad, I have begun riding the Pan Mass Challenge. The PMC logo is in the middle of the bicycle gear and I am planning on putting each year that I ride in the spaces in the gear. I am riding in 2014 and will get that date filled in soon!”

I survived a malignant bone tumor (sarcoma) on my spine and now I dance, dance, DANCE!”

I created an art project for family and friends to complete and posted it… It was fun to receive something new in the mail every day.”

My husband, an artist, did his best work after being diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Now I am left with his colorful vision of the world. This painting, in particular, captures a moment of joy for our daughters, when Dad was still alive and life was full of wonder.”