A Tale of Tattoos

My intention for this post was to solely be a reflection on the events of last Tuesday.  Tattoo Tuesday.  But, that was before reading Being Sarah’s post, The N Word.  Sarah has inspired me to screw self imposed word limits and offer more description with regard to the actual procedure, not something I’m all that comfortable with, but here goes.

For all the ladies contemplating tattoos as part of your reconstruction…This one’s for you.

I went into T-day with unanswered questions, anxiety and zero expectations about the procedure I was about to undergo.  The only thing I carried with me was the desire to do it.  I had been living “unfinished” for quite a while. The whole two & half years since mastectomy, I suppose.  I finally felt ready to move forward.  I wanted this to improve what I had, but I was unsure how tattooing nipples and areola could restore what was taken away. Wouldn’t it just be more of the same?  Fake?  Reconstructed, not real.

I went alone to my 1:30 appointment, as if there’s some honor in carrying the load myself or maybe, by going alone I could believe it was just a “simple procedure.”  That it was nothing, not a big deal, but I was only fooling myself, because, of course, anything having to do with reconstruction, both physically and emotionally, is a huge deal.

Stepping off the elevator, down the hall from the operating room where I had my mastectomy, two reconstructive surgeries, and nipple reconstruction, I realize I have history here, in this building.  Whether I like it or not.

When I check in with the receptionist she hands me a Consent for Surgery form.  I’m surprised it’s needed for tattoos. I look at her and ask, “Is that what they’re calling it here?  Surgery?  That’s not what they say in the back alleys.”  The receptionist said I was funny.

I sat down and tweeted my solo status and almost immediately, Sherpas Nancy’s Point and Jodyms virtually sat with me and I feel less alone.

A nurse I know takes me into the exam room, where the big chair looms in the middle, under the bright light.  She describes the procedure.  I sign more forms.  My surgeon walks in. He inspects his previous work since he hasn’t seen his nipple creations in over six months.  He then takes a beloved Sharpie and measures for position and size and sends me to the mirror to check it out.

I’ve paused here in writing, because how do I describe what I saw?  Two large dotted circles surround little handmade nipples which bear little resemblance to the real thing. How is this going to possibly work?  I really don’t know.

I say the position is fine, the size, too big…porn star big.  Well, that’s what I think, but I say it with my opinion omitted.  We agree he’ll stay well inside the circle.

He shows me the ink colors he’ll use.  A trio of pale, peachy browns and it’s all very surreal.  Should he numb it all before he starts?  I don’t know.  I still don’t have much feeling there.  He pokes around a bit and to my surprise, it hurt.  Just goes to show you how long it’s been since my mastectomy.  Time enough for nerve endings to regenerate.  I think how happy my breast surgeon will be to hear that news.  He usually asks if any feeling has returned.  Now, I can tell him, a big yes to tattoo needles!  Not much else though.

I’m numbed up then, but even so, the procedure is uncomfortable. A lot of pushing, pinching.  The tool used is loud. My surgeon and his nurse stand on either side of me trying their best to be normal.  Like we’re all just hanging out in the afternoon looking at artwork.  As if the act of tattooing areola is something ordinary, when it’s really the opposite…extraordinary.

When it’s over, I glance down to see two large, reddish circles staring back me.  I’m reminded of my youngest son’s newest obsession.  Drawing funny faces filled with big circle eyes and noses, all put together in a collection he calls, The Book of Funny.

Sigh…I have become a living, breathing canvas for The Book of Funny.  Maybe in the big scheme of things, among all the steps along my breast cancer road, tattooing is kind of funny.  Maybe a book showcasing all that’s funny, is exactly where I belong.

Somewhere in my brain I hear the nurse say the redness will fade in time to reveal the true pigment and now I’m finished.  I ask my surgeon if this is the end for the two of us, after more than two years.

“That’s up to you.”

Thanks.  It’s been up to me right from the very first day, with the detection of “something” on a routine ultrasound and now I’m here to finish it, but in the end he tells me to come back early next year offering one last lingering thread to grasp before snipping.  Before pushing me out of his nest.

I head home, keenly aware of pain and bandages across my chest one more time.  The next morning, I’m sad to see red, crusty gauze in the mirror.  I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve peeled away bloody bandages before showering.  Here was yet another.

I steel myself for the picture of funny I spotted the day before, big red circles laughing back at me.  The bandages come off easily.  There’s no blood.  Just pigment, now a dull red, less menacing and I see for the first time the reasoning behind the size.  My scars are hidden behind the tattooed areola…and it all makes sense.  I feel like I’ve been let in on a secret.  Something all the surgeons always knew.  Tattoos are called a finishing touch for good reason.  I’m surprised.  I never expected to actually like it, but I do, more than I ever thought possible.

Adding tattoos brought about a vision I hadn’t seen in a very long time and I’m buying into it.  I’ll take it.  I like looking at what’s been created, reconstructed out of nothing.  Just some stretched muscle, skin, silicone implants and now, peachy pigment.

Not bad.

I have to say, nipple reconstruction and areola tattoos are a very personal choice.  I understand when enough is enough and why some women choose not to move forward.  It had not been an easy decision for me and it took quite a while to get there, but, I’m glad I did.

I had told my surgeon before he left the room that day, I was satisfied and as I said it, I believed that was good enough.  I had gone far enough, but now, one week later, I’m more than satisfied.  I’m pleased…and it took tattoos to do that.

Who would have thought?

9 thoughts on “A Tale of Tattoos

  1. The Book of Funny! I love that! You should cherish the fact that those faces and that book is part of your association with your tattooing. Because NOW, how can you ever think about that moment without smiling? Mission accomplished, I say. Seems like without realizing it, your son made a difficult time a little easier.Good luck to you and your nipples. :)Love, Deb


  2. I am SO glad you are happy. This has become such a topic I am quite tempted to blog the link to my \”finished product\” in an upcoming post. If the head of plastics felt they were good enough to use in a medical paper being peer reviewed, I can't think of a better group to share them with than those who have to LIVE with this….xoxoxox


  3. A good tattoo really is amazing. I've even seen more websites for women tattoo artists who specialize in covering all manner of scars and creating realisitic looking nipples even without the bud-creating surgery. I'm soooo glad for you, Stacey. And they will keep looking better and better. Finish line? I hope so. Gentle hugs, girlfriend.


  4. Stacey,Thank you for such a terrific, honest posting. I am so glad you are pleased with the outcome. Your posting really resonated with me on so many levels. The bloody gauze once against traumatized me, and I cried a lot during the healing. Now I'm comfortable with my new nipples, but I miss my former ones still. Great tatooing is a miraculous thing, though.


  5. What a wonderful account of your experience, apprehensions and all. I remember that day when your tweet came in and I really did sort of feel like I was \”right there\” with you, especially having just gone through this procedure myself. That was another moment when I realized just how special this on-line support group really is. It is all a bit surreal for sure isn't it? Each step is huge. I'm glad you're pleased with how things are looking. Thanks for sharing about this personal topic. I know it wasn't easy.


  6. Thank you, Sara B. Never thought I could say I'm pleased about any of this.Hi Deb! I know, The Book of Funny. You're right, it does make me smile. Thanks for reading, as always.AnneMarie, it is quite amazing, really. I'll never forget the scars are there, but not seeing them is really powerful and I never thought I'd feel that way. It all comes with time, I guess.Kathi, as an artist, you know the power it holds. Thank you.Helen, thank you so much for reading and your comment. It's my hope I can, somehow, help anyone with questions. I'm sparing no details these days. Feel free to ask anything you want. Good luck.Hi Beth, I figured I couldn't be the only one facing a mirror with bloody bandages and that helps me to write about it. Thanks for reading and your comment. Hi Nancy, you often inspire me to be more honest. No, it's not easy. There always seems to be a grey area for what is \”too much information.\” It was hard to be so open about it. I'm not sure why. I wish I could figure that out. But, we muddle through. Thank you blogging sister.


  7. I am glad that this closes a chapter for you. The emotional road back from breast cancer and mastectomy is a winding, rocky one at best. Kudos to you for finding a place a peace. As Unilateral-girl, myself, I toy with the tattoo idea, wondering if it would help me feel more, well, symmetrical. And then I look at my natural, fed-4-babies, 48 year old real breast and think to myself, nothing can compare. And it stops me in my tracks. I can't feel the reconstructed breast. Numbness after mastectomy is something nobody warned me about (and few if ANY women are honest to others about, even to survivors) and even if they had, I couldn't have changed it…I had no choice in this surgical option. My breast was riddled with cancer, 3 different kinds. It's like an illegal living on my chest and passing herself off as \”real\”, yet I know her dirty little secret. I want to send her back from whence she came BUT I CAN'T. To put pretty lipstick on her, to me, is like a massive illegal cover up and for who? I do understand some women's emotional need to look in the mirror and like what they see. To accept and put behind them what has happened to them. Maybe that is easier to do when they chose the type of surgery their cancer presented to them, and they chose a mastectomy. Maybe they feel that when both sides \”match\”. I also know that none of us would chose cancer. This…all of this…..is a big game of choosing the lesser of two evils. None of them is fully satisfactory. We would all like the real thing back and to never have had to walk this journey. 3 years later I am still trying to find that place of peace.


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