A breast cancer diagnosis can bring the world crashing down for both the patient and their family. While thoughts and energies are initially directed towards survival and treatment, post-mastectomy women are often keen to regain their sense of self. Breast reconstruction is one way to achieve this and now new breast tattooing services are being introduced to help ladies look like they did before their operation.
Take Carol McGlinchey, who two years ago was stunned to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Seeing the doctor for pain under her arms, which she had attributed to carrying trays at her own business, Peppercorn Coffee Shop in Houghton-le-Spring, she couldn’t believe that she could have the illness and yet no lumps in her breast.
“It was both hard to take in and frightening,” said the 62 year old from Hetton-le-Hole. “I really wasn’t expecting it and it took a while to come to terms with my illness. Your first thoughts go to survival and the treatment process. For me, I just wanted the breast off and that’s all I could think about.
“You come through that however and start to think about how you feel and how you want to look. I opted for a reconstruction, symmetry surgery and then a nipple reconstruction. This took about fifteen months – it’s really not a short treatment programme.”
Supporting Carol through her breast cancer journey was Amanda Pinkerton, a breast care specialist nurse at Spire Washington Hospital, where areola and nipple tattooing services have been introduced to help ladies achieve the most natural post-operation look.
Amanda said: “When you have a full reconstruction the results can be amazing but at the end the nipple is the same colour as skin. Giving the nipple a natural look is something our breast care patients are generally very keen to achieve, which is why we introduced the service. It’s not just the areola we can help with - the whole nipple can be tattooed, depending on skin type & consultant preference.”
A simple and easy process in comparison to the procedures carried out before, areola tattooing is relatively pain free because nerve endings are removed during the mastectomy. Asked back to the hospital around three months after a nipple reconstruction, patients are given a skin test to ensure there is no allergy to the pigments as Amanda explains: “It’s a bit like having a test for hair dye at the hairdressers. Although adverse reactions are highly unusual, we always want to eliminate any potential risk. If everything is fine, the person comes back 48 hours later for a two hour appointment and it’s all quite straight forward.
“Very frequently the longest part is securing a colour match to the lady’s other nipple as we mix various pigments and shades to get the correct result. Once the colour match has been achieved we then apply a local anaesthetic cream and after twenty minutes, mark out the area we are going to tattoo with a lip liner. The lady concerned is instrumental in all of this in order to ensure she is happy with both the shape and colour.
“At this point we tattoo using a small pen-like needle and patients may feel a slight pushing and vibrating sensation as it is placed against the breast while the pigment is transferred to the outer layer of skin. The whole nipple areola can be completed in around thirty minutes, after which the patient is free to go home.”
As someone who has used the service, Carol testifies to how good it is: “It’s exactly as Amanda says and the only way I can describe it is as the lovely bow on top of a fantastic big present.
“Although the mastectomy was the first thing on my mind, once I had been through that I then wanted to deal with the scar across my rib cage. The reconstructions helped with this and now the remaining scars have faded somewhat and I have had this done, the results are unbelievable. From a distance you would never know it’s not my nipple and I cannot thank the team at Spire Washington Hospital enough for the support they have given me.”