October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Here’s how artists are using ink to heal souls with mastectomy tattoos.
Have you ever stood in the cosmetics aisle staring at the rows upon rows of bottles, jars, compacts and powders with names like “buff beige” and “sienna,” wondering whether you’re more of an olive or if the light in here is just weird? This was going to be the time you remembered to write down the number on the last bottle you bought and used even though it was off by a shade, so that you would remember to buy the one just a step darker / lighter / warmer / cooler. But you forgot again, and now you’re wondering what color you even are.
Now ask yourself: what color are my areolas?
Yes, seriously. Like foundation, temporary areola tattoos are sold in shades from peachy “cream” to a deep-brown “mahogany.” Actually, the shades look a lot like the pallets of blush in that cosmetics aisle, but the patrons of these products are a tribe of survivors who now find themselves representing something else: a niche market.
For breast cancer patients who undergo mastectomies, survival means carving out pieces of themselves. Then comes the choice: to undergo reconstruction or to forego further procedures. It may seem like an obvious choice to try to regain some sense of normalcy by opting in — but the process of reconstruction is not without further discomfort.
One survivor, Rebecca, described the expander used to make room for an implant “like a weight in [her] chest.” Even when the process was complete, she found the scars too jarring to look at, and notes that when her weight changes, the size of the implant does not. Other survivors report infections, painful experiences with the expansion and dissatisfaction with the results.
Another woman, Rose, stated that she might rather have her remaining breast removed rather than undergo reconstruction.
In contrast, Carole — a woman who describes her choice to undergo a bilateral mastectomy as “proactive,” also says the reconstruction process helped her heal.
That is not to say it wasn’t painful. It was, and it was more difficult because she felt she needed to mask her feelings from her family.
At the same time, the process helped her feel like she was reclaiming her body. She described her physician’s office as her “happy place” during the recovery. For Carole, seeing her body change in a process she could control aided in her recovery. It helped her feel good about herself.
Even with expanders and implants, women who have undergone mastectomies face a startling change.
The procedure often involves the removal of the areola. While some women may be candidates for innovative “nipple-sparing” procedures, the majority of women who undergo mastectomies are left cancer-free but with bodies that are markedly changed from the ones they had prior to their treatments. The scars left by the removal of breast tissue, and the subsequent reconstruction, are constant reminders of the cancer that was once there.
The new normal is a far cry from what was.
In the case of the areola, there are options. Temporary tattoos, for starters, but also more permanent solutions. You can, for example, have amazingly realistic areolas tattooed on. These give the semblance of normality and are, for obvious reasons, much lower-maintenance than temporary tattoos.
Carole’s story shows how her choice to have nipple reconstruction — her surgeon was able to create the physical appearance of a nipple from skin graft, followed by 3D areola tattooing — allowed her to cover a large portion of the scarring from her reconstruction.
She states that her breasts aren’t just something to make her feel closer to her normal self. That is, the outcome of her reconstruction is not just having a body she doesn’t feel bad about. Her breasts are something she feels good about. They give her confidence.
The artists who apply these tattoos — often advertised as “paramedical tattoos” — advertise themselves as knowledgeable but also supportive. Their skills can be exemplified by the long list of credentials acquired by practiced artists.
Sherry Hale, the master artist at the Custom Beaute studio in Amherst, New York, is certified in a variety of cosmetic tattooing processes. One of her clients, a woman named Carla Lynch who was recovering from cancer treatment after her doctors discovered she had breast cancer, opted to have her eyebrows tattooed after realizing they were growing in “haphazardly.
“When you’re done with treatment — I call it the comeback process — you look in the mirror and you don’t have hair, eyebrows, you say, “Now I’m going to bring myself back,” Lynch said.
Hale received a certification from the Beau Institute specific to the application of areola tattoos. The Beau Institute offers a two-day course to train tattoo artists in areola tattooing, specifically emphasizing size, color and placement of the areola to create the most natural look. Students can return to learn more advanced techniques.
The models used in the course are actual breast cancer survivors — women who have the opportunity to have their tattoos applied free of charge.
Some cancer survivors choose to see their bodies as newfound opportunities: literal blank canvases to be adorned. In the world of post-mastectomy tattoos, realistic areolas are just the beginning.
The landing page for P.Ink, an organization dedicated to linking breast cancer survivors with tattoo artists, boldly declares “breast cancer doesn’t have to leave the last mark.” The statement rings true with the work that P.Ink does, giving survivors the opportunities to reclaim their bodies and heal through their tattoos. For the past few years, P.Ink Day has been celebrated during Breast Cancer Awareness month to bring together survivors and artists looking to help by lending their art.
The designs are, in a word, beautiful.
They are also a sign of acceptance and rebirth. While areola tattoos help women see their bodies as normal, it seems that choosing a unique post-mastectomy tattoo can help a survivor come to terms with their experience in a different way.
Even if their body has changed, it is not less than it was before. In fact, it can be more. It can be a work of art. It can be a sign of strength and courage. The ability to choose anything is unutterably empowering for anyone who has had to live with the feeling that they have no control over their body.
The White Tiger Tattoo studio in Webster, New York, lists a variety of procedures for women looking to cover their mastectomy scars: single side work, bilateral, 3D tattooing… A gallery of “other options” is, as the studio aptly states, more decorative. Peacock feathers twirl where an areola once would have been. The wings of birds wrap over scars. Some have even opted for “areolas” shaped like little pink flowers. In a stunning feat of artistry, a leprechaun tattoo that was defaced by further surgical procedures was reborn as two (one with the original legs, the other with the original torso).
The clever restoration reflects the passion of these artists — they will find a way to overwrite whatever harm cancer has done.
Perhaps the best part of these decorative options is that they look stunning whether a woman has opted to undergo reconstruction or not. They remove the pressure of “returning to normal” and allow those who wish to transform their bodies into something of their own design.
Fortunately, the decision to reconstruct or not, and to tattoo or not, is not one that any woman need make alone. The American Cancer Society offers women the help of their Reach to Recovery program — an initiative designed to connect breast cancer survivors with other women who know what they are going through.