When people think of tattooing, they tend to think of people displaying beautiful art or commemorative designs on their bodies, but for Jeanine McTansey,it's something different. Getting a tattoo is normally a private affair, but to her, it’s a family affair. She’s a different kind of tattoo artist, working with cancer patients to restore color to their nipples after breast reconstruction surgery.
“The impact is so fantastic. A lot of time patients will bring family members, because this has been a long journey, and at the very end, the very last step, they get a tattoo. That’s it. That’s the finale.”
During a mastectomy, doctors typically remove the patient’s Nipple and Areola Complex (NAC). Though doctors are able to recreate the nipple, they can’t recreate the areola – the colored tissue surrounding the nipple. That’s where Jeanine comes in. She completes the reconstruction process by coloring in the area around the new nipple, helping to make the reconstructed breasts look as natural as possible. It’s a small detail, but a very important one. A natural-looking breast gives a woman the confidence and self-esteem to thrive after surviving breast cancer.
Restorative tattooing is a relatively new procedure. Originally, physicians would color in the area themselves, but the results looked unnatural and the colors they used faded quickly. This has changed over the last 10-15 years. Nowadays traditional tattoo artists, sometimes called permanent makeup technicians by the medical community, have taken up medical tattooing in order to help women bring closure to their breast cancer journey. These artists incorporate traditional tattooing techniques, such as color theory and needle configuration, in order to provide women’s areola tattoos with realistic color. Instead of iron-oxide pigments, they use traditional tattoo ink with pure color and no plastics or additives. It’s also permanent and won’t fade. The artists combine different inks together and spread it on the patient’s skin in order to get a correct color match. Once they’ve matched it to the patient’s skin tone, they load the machine and apply the color to the woman’s breasts.
How It’s Performed
Getting a restorative tattoo is a two-stage process. During the first session, artists lay a foundation of color. Details and more color are added to the tattoo during the second session, which takes place about 45 days later. The delay gives the patient’s skin time to heal before the final color is applied. During each session, artists use a topical numbing cream in order to eliminate discomfort. Tattooing causes some skin inflammation which makes it appear redder than normal for the first few days. After about ten days, the inflammation will fade and the tattooed skin will peel slightly. Once the peeling skin is gone, the tattoo will take on its final, natural color.
Bringing Closure to Breast Cancer Patients
Restorative tattooing is not just about aesthetics. It’s about closure. It is the last step in a long and arduous journey, which is why so many patients bring their family members when they get them. They want them to share in the joy of defeating this terrible disease. Restoring this final detail of their physical appearance allows women to feel beautiful and feminine again. Though the tattoo is on the outside, it lets the inside heal by giving women better self-esteem and confidence. They survived, and now they can thrive.