Healing with Ink Post Mastectomy

Healing with Ink Post Mastectomy

Survivor Opts to Get Tattoo Art After Her Breast Cancer Surgery

Sheila Durham had never set foot inside a tattoo parlor before, and the 51-year-old Live Oak woman would never have imagined it happening.  But the breast cancer survivor found herself inside a tattoo parlor after surgeons performed a mastectomy.  Diagnosed at 45, she had had both breasts removed, and then underwent reconstruction surgery.

Dr. Tutu Cheng, a plastic surgeon with Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center, says once women have been diagnosed with breast cancer it can take as long as a year to complete reconstructive surgeries and/or have tattoo work completed to create nipples.

Sheila had heard and read a lot about what artists could do to “create” nipples with ink.  Initially, she wasn’t particularly interested, but at this point, she was ready.   “At first I didn’t care, but after time, I kept looking at my bare breast.  I had never noticed how bare a breast is without a nipple.

How Mastectomy Affect Women Differently

“When a woman gets diagnosed with breast cancer, it affects how a woman feels, primarily because as women, we often identify ourselves with breasts as part of our identity,” Dr. Cheng says.

“I would see it when I changed or showered — and it started bothering me,” Sheila recalls.  Despite having a version of an inked-on nipple done already, it was time for a redo.  “I had it done the first time at the plastic surgeon’s office, but it didn’t last, because they use medical grade ink, not permanent.”

So she eventually made the decision to get some real ink.  “I had it done a couple years later, permanently, and I am thrilled,” she says.  “It makes me feel whole.  I don’t even notice it anymore, it is just me.

According to a non-profit group called P.ink, it’s a decision more and more women are making and is turning out to have  great results.  “Most breast cancer survivors are told they have two options after a mastectomy: reconstruction or no reconstruction,” the group’s website says.  “We believe survivors deserve a third option that most aren’t familiar with: tattoos- for scar coverage, scar adornment or nipple replacement.

“One way we at P.ink make this option accessible is by mobilizing local communities via P.ink Day: a private, annual, curated experience in which local volunteers connect survivors with experienced artists, who donate their time and provide a complimentary tattoo. The events occur in October.

While Durham did not have the P.ink support system in her area, she says she did have wonderful family support.  “My husband was awesome, he didn’t care,” she says, “He said to do whatever made me feel as beautiful as I was to him.”

How Ink Helps with Healing Post Mastectomy

While she’s delighted with the results of her ink-drawn solutions, she’s not finished just yet. “I had a double mastectomy, so scarring is considerable, my left is pretty straight and doesn’t bother me,” she says.

“I have been looking into a tattoo to cover the scar on my right side, I had a DIEP (Deep Inferior Epigastric Perforators) procedure to rebuild my right breast, and the scar is bad,” she says.  

Online, she’s found a lot of gorgeous examples of tattoos survivors have had done.  “I am looking at a vine with flowers,” she says. And she may even  incorporate some tiny baby feet, to represent the babies of daughter Jenny Diaz that did not make it – before she was eventually graced with two boys.



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