After cancer treatment, Kirk Mathers found lasting way to thank his care team: He got inked

When Kirk Mathers was diagnosed with cancer, he was terrified. But he was also determined to make his experience mean something. He did just that by creating custom T-shirts – and by getting a series of tattoos that continue to spark conversations.

Kirk Mathers was devastated.

He'd just learned that an egg-sized growth on his foot was cancerous. After nearly 60 years of good health, he was facing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. And he was terrified of what lay ahead.

That night, Kirk turned on the TV to distract himself. It was almost Christmas, and as he was flipping through channels, he landed on a movie he'd seen many times before: The Polar Express.

A message in the movie became a touchstone of Kirk's cancer journey.

"There's a scene in the movie when a child hears a bell and says, 'I believe,'" Kirk says. "I broke down during that scene. I decided that I believed. I believed I was going to come through this."

Thanks to Kirk's care team at Mayo Clinic, that belief became a reality.

Just a bump

Kirk Mathers.

Kirk first noticed a small bump on his foot in the summer of 2020. The bump grew over the next few months and Kirk had it evaluated.

"I had a biopsy on Dec. 18, 2020," he says. The results revealed sarcoma, a type of cancer that begins in the bones and in the soft tissues.

"It was a shock," Kirk says.

He immediately began investigating treatment options. When he didn't like the plan suggested by one hospital, he scheduled an appointment at Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

"It was the best decision of my life," Kirk says. "It's why I'm still here. Every cancer patient needs to get a second opinion."

A team of teams

Mathers' custom T-shirt marks his last day of radiation.

At Mayo, a multidisciplinary team came up with a plan for Kirk. They'd remove the tumor, then treat him with chemotherapy and radiation. Finally, he'd have a skin graft to repair the damage his foot sustained during surgery to remove the tumor.

Kirk was determined to face his treatment with optimism. He hoped to inspire others to do the same. One way he did that was through the creation of 50 custom cancer T-shirts.

"I had first day of chemo, last day of chemo, bump in the road, chemo is a piece of cake," Kirk says of some of his T-shirt themes. "Every time I had an appointment, I had a custom cancer T-shirt."

When Kirk finished all of his treatments, he decided to do something more lasting. In May 2023, he got a series of tattoos to commemorate his cancer journey.

It's very humbling and an utmost privilege to be recognized this way. We always strive to provide the best possible outcome and be worthy of the trust patients place in our hands.

Mahesh Seetharam, M.D.

The tattoos — Kirk's first — include a boxer who represents his fight against cancer.

"Victor — my nickname for him, short for Victory — has the radiation symbol on his chest and a small scar (just like I have) on his upper right chest for the IV port used to administer my chemotherapy," Kirk says.

The tattoo also features two dates — the date Kirk was diagnosed with cancer and the date tests revealed he was NED: No evidence of disease.

Below the fighter is another tattoo: "I believe," a reminder of the message Kirk connected with while watching The Polar Express.

His artful arm features another message: "A bump in the road." It's a phrase he channeled often during his treatment and one his daughter Missy memorialized in the tattoo, which she designed.

Kirk also honored the Sarcoma Foundation with a series of sunflower tattoos, the foundation's symbol and something Kirk believes represents "a hope for all cancer patients that their outcome will be a positive one."

A permanent tribute

Tattoo with the initials of Mathers' care team members.

The most unique art on Kirk's arm is a tribute to his Mayo Clinic care team.

He asked each of his four physicians — Mahesh Seetharam, M.D., Jonathan Ashman, M.D., Ph.D., Krista Goulding, M.D., and Alanna Rebecca, M.D., — their favorite color. He then incorporated those in an egg-shaped tattoo that's the size of his tumor. Each physician's initials appear on a ribbon of their favorite color wrapped around the egg.

It's a gesture that means a great deal to Kirk's care team.

"It's very humbling and an utmost privilege to be recognized this way," says Dr. Seetharam. "We always strive to provide the best possible outcome and be worthy of the trust patients place in our hands. This reminds us of why this profession is so noble and rewarding."

For Kirk, the tattoos provide an opportunity to connect with others who may be facing their own challenges.

"People come up to me and ask about the tattoos," he says. "I always tell them that they aren't alone.

"And I always tell them about Mayo Clinic."