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Tattoo Artists Help Breast Cancer Survivors Regain Their Femininity

By Serena Solomon | August 1, 2012 6:45am

NOHO — After a two-year battle with cancer, a double mastectomy and five other surgeries to reconstruct her breasts, Brandy Harper had one thing left to take care of.

Recently, she spent an hour and a half in a Midtown tattoo artist's chair as she inked nipples onto her chest.

"It really is a huge deal,” said Harper, who is in her early 30s, "It is like the icing on the cake."

For many breast cancer survivors, tattooing a nipple onto their reconstructed breasts can be the last hurdle after a long battle with cancer. The highly specialized procedure is an art for paramedical and cosmetic tattooists who see it as helping to close a painful chapter in the lives of survivors.

"It is the very last thing they have to do,” said cosmetic tattooist Sandra Mendez, 38, who works out of the American Cellulite Center at Broadway and Houston Street in NoHo.

"It really is the stamp, the seal that says, ‘Let's move on now.'"

Mendez, who studied art and skincare, was motivated to enter the field of paramedical tattooing after a friend with breast cancer asked her to do her nipple tattoos.

She now offers everything from areola tattoos to eyeliner and eyebrows for those who lose their hair during radiation or chemotherapy.

Tattoo artist Jilleen Hoffman, who has worked with more than 2,000 women since 1995, performed the procedure on Harper earlier this year. Receiving the tattoos can be an emotional release for many of her clients, she said.

"The person has gone through so many ups and downs," said Hoffman, who works with plastic surgeon Dr. Christina Ahn in Midtown East. "When I finish the procedure, it is almost like giving them their soul back and that is emotional to the point of crying."

While breast cancer survivors with completely reconstructed breasts will never have a functional nipple again, many survivors opt for tattoos to feel normal again, or to cover up scarring from the surgery.

"You don't have to look in the mirror and be reminded of what you went through," said Harper, whose mother is currently fighting her own battle with breast cancer. 

Mendez added, "They really just want to be women again. We are born with nipples. We are not born with breasts."

The process costs about $900, Mendez said. Some insurance companies cover it, while others cover only part of it or reject it outright.

Some cancer survivors have their doctors recreate the protrusion of a nipple, which Mendez said is done similar to how an "outie belly button" is tied. However, for others, another surgical procedure is just too much.

For those who opt out of additional surgery, Mendez can create a "3D nipple" — which recreates the nipple with lifelike shadows.

"I would give the illusion that there is a protrusion through shadows," said Mendez, "It really is like art."

Some clients bring in an image prior to their surgeries, including a few clients who request something well known. Some might even bring in a Playboy magazine to demonstrate what they want, Mendez said.

Some breast cancer survivors only need one areola tattoo, if they've had a partial mastectomy. In that case, Hoffmann works hard to match the existing breast.

"It is very difficult to get an exact color match. It can take a little bit longer," she said of the procedure that often takes about an hour and a half.

Despite the rewarding nature of the job, many cosmetic tattoo artists are reluctant to enter the paramedical field.

"There are not many people that want to take on cancer patients because it is a whole different game you are dealing with," said Mendez.

"They are coming from chemo so their skin is very fragile. They don’t heal as quickly as you or I would because their body is trying to heal other things."

Didi Grossman, 42, is scheduled to have an areola set tattooed on by Mendez In September. She underwent a double masectomy in 2005 and due to a series of infections has only just undergone the reconstruction phase. 

Her insurance does not cover the tattoos, but Grossman won't have to pay for them because she was picked for free tattoos through a lottery system Mendez offers.

"It will mean everything. It will mean normal," said Grossmann. "I miss my breasts."