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Power of ink: How tattoos helped a B.C. woman through her breast cancer journey

Ami Salmen’s tattoos helped her throughout her breast cancer journey. She’s now in the running to be on the cover of Inked Magazine
Ami Salmen says her tattoos have helped her to accept her new body, and keep loving herself throughout her breast cancer journey. (Photo by Lexy Parks, courtesy of Ami Salmen)

Ami Salmen isn’t your average 28-year-old. Not only is she currently first in her group in the national ‘Inked’ competition, but she also just beat a very rare and aggressive form of breast cancer.

Inked Magazine is currently holding its annual online competition to find a tattooed model to appear on its cover. The winner is decided by public online votes. As well as appearing on the cover, the winner will also take home a grand prize of $25,000.

Salmen’s story has struck a chord with the public, and she is in the running for the top 15.

Salmen says her tattoos have helped her to accept her new body, and keep loving herself throughout her breast cancer journey.

“I got my first tattoo at age 16, and since then I’ve gotten so many more. I have them all over. My legs, my chest, my arms, the back of my neck, my ribs and sides,” Salmen said. “Most of them are memorial tattoos and a lot of them have different meanings.”

She says if she had to choose a favourite tattoo, it would be one on her left leg.

“It’s a memorial for an uncle figure of mine who passed away. He lived on the Steeples Ranch, I practically grew up there. The tattoo has the mountains and critters — it’s really symbolic of him and my upbringing.”

The top 10 will be decided on Feb. 10, the top five on Feb. 17, and voting for the finals takes place from March 11 to 17. You can vote for Salmen here.

Salmen, originally from Cranbrook, moved to Kelowna in 2013. She didn’t plan on entering the Inked competition — it was her friend’s idea. But she says she’s been surprised by the amount of support she has received.

Salmen says she would donate some of the funds, save some, and use some to take her best friend on a trip.

“I would donate five to seven thousand to the BC Cancer Society. They have helped me so much. There are different fundraising streams through the society, and some cancers don’t receive as much funding as others,” Salmen said. “I also would take my best friend on a trip. She held my hair, so to speak, the hair I didn’t have, through all of my cancer treatments. I don’t have family that lives close by.”

Salmen says that entering the Inked competition has allowed her to share her breast cancer story — something she wants to raise more awareness of.

“Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It can hit any person at any age, any time,” she said.

Salmen has spent the last year and a half going through chemo, radiation and multiple surgeries. She was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, a very rare and aggressive form. The type of cancer she was diagnosed with has a 75 per cent recurrence rate within the first five years. If it comes back, the survival rate is just ten per cent.

“I was sitting in bed one day, just watching a show or something, and I went to itch my arm. I felt a hard lump, about the size of a pea,” Salmen said of day one of her journey. “I made an appointment and got in a few days later. My doctor found another lump, and so I went in for an ultrasound.

“I wasn’t even home from the ultrasound appointment when they called back. One week later, November 26th, I was diagnosed.”

From then on it was appointment after appointment. Salmen was told she’d have to undergo four to six months of chemo, plus radiation and surgeries.

“I stopped work on December 15th, and started chemo on January 8th. I finished chemo in April. It sucked. It started with this really nasty drug that they call the red devil,” Salmen said, shuddering. “Let me tell you — it makes, you, sick.”

Three days after her second treatment, her hair began falling out.

“It was traumatic. It’s just like you see in the movies, big chunks falling out at once. Within a few days it was all gone,” Salmen recalled. “The next round of chemo was a lot easier, but I had allergies to it and it made me super itchy. At least I was strong enough to go for walks outside and start to live a little more normally. I also had a full response to that treatment, which is good.”

Next came her first surgery — a double bilateral mastectomy.

“After that process I started radiation. It took five weeks, every day from Monday to Friday. The radiation itself wasn’t so bad, but the healing process was almost unbearable. My skin was peeling and flaking, it’s still really scarred.”

Now, almost two years later, Salmen goes for her final reconstructive surgery in March.

“I was 26 when I was diagnosed and I just turned 28 a few weeks ago,” Salmen said. “I don’t have the mutated gene, and I’m first in my family to get it. Right now I’m feeling good; I get tired easily. My doctors are very happy with everything and my oncologist is absolutely on it.”

READ: Cancer survivor Max Parrot wins Canada’s first gold medal at 2022 Beijing Olympics

Being so young, Salmen explained that part of the chemo treatment involves induced menopause, with the goal of hopefully saving her uterus and ovaries.

“I had 17 eggs frozen, in case,” Salmen said, adding that there is a monthly cost to keep them frozen. “Cancer is expensive. Luckily, for me, my treatments were covered. But not everyone is. It can cost 10 to 15 thousand dollars for each treatment. Anti-nausea pills are $122 for three pills. I had a GoFundMe page, and my friends set up a fundraiser raffle. I was blown away by their support.”

Salmen also met a new friend while going through treatments. This friend is the same age with a similar form of cancer. Salmen says her friend’s doctor didn’t take her seriously until her cancerous lump was the size of a lemon.

“The doctors told her she was too young to have breast cancer,” Salmen said.

Referencing the fact that her cancer could return within the next five years, Salmen’s advice for herself, and everyone else, is to live life with passion and purpose.

“I try to stay positive in everything I do. Even through all of this, I only cried twice - when I lost my hair and after my first surgery. But your attitude is half the battle. I thought, well, at least I won’t have to buy shampoo for a while,” she explained. “I’m in a mode to get things done. You just don’t know. I can’t wait to get back to work full-time. I have so many goals. I want to travel. I have so many things I want to do…I want to be open about my story and want to spread awareness.”

Inked is a tattoo lifestyle digital media company that bills itself as the ‘outsiders’ insider media. Covering music, fashion, art, sports and the rest of the lifestyle of the tattooed, Inked has made the transition from the newsstand to digital media company, and a brand that sits among magazines like GQ and Vanity Fair, according to Wikipedia.

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Corey Bullock

About the Author: Corey Bullock

Corey Bullock is a multimedia journalist and writer who grew up in Burlington, Ontario.
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