Thursday, September 3, 2015

Just Call Me 'Nip': Virginia Tattoo Parlor is My Breast Reconstruction Finish Line

I'm one of those people who can't make her mind up about anything. Seriously. I will agonize over a restaurant menu like that meal is the friggin' Last Supper. Just fucking pick the wild rice or couscous, Heather.

'Nipple-palooza' was a family affair.
So imagine my anxiety when I find myself seated in Amy Black Tattoo and surrounded by Benjamin Moore-esque pigment samples.  I'd been preparing for this day for months, had conveniently scheduled my nipple tattooing here in Richmond, Va, amid my family's end-of-summer vacation. But somehow I'm still not ready. On the table in front of me are many color choices. Colors that would end up on my breasts. For life. Amy is reiterating that if I'm not sure, I don't have to do this today. The procedures to remove tattooing are costly and time-consuming, she says.

Is this an anxiety attack or hot flash? Beads of sweat are forming on my brow and I may or may not have just tinkled in my pants. (Oh, who the hell am I kidding? I definitely wet my pants. Thanks, hysterectomy.)

Call your husband and get his input, Amy suggests. But he's down the street at the toy store, trying to keep our kids entertained. Her suggestion will involve him dragging our children back -- no small feat -- and you know they'll have their own ideas about the nipples Mommy should get.  No doubt Nora would recommend getting Elmo-shaped headlights, while Fiorello would favor something pirate-themed -- perhaps some spirited Jolly Rogers.

No. Not an option. Right now, the only other member of my family present is my son's hermit crab, Pincher, who came along on our vacation and is sitting calmly in his cage on the floor of the tattoo studio. That son-of-a-bitch is of no help, so I'm on my own.

After much deliberation and some concerned looks from Amy on my indecisiveness, I manage to settle on a color selected from her vast collection of client photos.  She prints out a picture of said nipples, cuts them out, and has me hold them to my chest, trying to gauge my reaction. "That's it, although maybe just a little browner," I say way more confidently than I feel.

Time to get started

I'm fairly certain I won't feel this, given the extent of my DIEP flap procedure -- aka, "the nerve slayer." Heck, you could mistake me for a Holstein and try to milk me, and all I'd feel is some pressure. However, apparently what goes on at the surface is much different than what lies beneath.

Most women don't feel the tattooing. However, I'm not one of them. "Oh yeah, I feel that," I tell Amy as she begins outlining the areolas. She asks me to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10, and I place mine somewhere in the area of 6. According to Amy, I'm a rarity who happens to have about 70 to 80 percent of the feeling of someone who hasn't had her boobs chopped off and rebuilt.  Good job, nerves! However, it's nothing that some numbing cream can't take care of.

Getting nipple tattoos is not as orgasmic as I make it look.
Joining me just as the ink starts to flow is my longtime friend from high school, Nicole. Ever the multi-tasker, I managed to find a talented tattoo artist who happens to work out of the same town Nicole now lives in, so I get to see my friend AND get inked. Thankfully, she's not freaked out by the sight of delicate breast tissue getting tattooed and is a willing photographer for this event. (Side note: For the ladies out there considering nipple tattooing, I highly recommend bringing along a friend or someone else close to you for input and support.)

As Amy does her thing, my mind wanders to one of the choices that was easy to make: coming here for this final stage of my reconstruction. A lot of women talk about and opt for "a Vinnie," which is code for tit tats by Vinnie Myers in Maryland. The guy is unbelievably gifted at what he does. But I've seen Amy's name come up in my BRCA groups on Facebook, and for me, something just clicks. She's got a skilled hand and she's launched a nonprofit that helps women pay for post-mastectomy tattooing. I love that. Plus, her studio was recently blessed by some bad-ass Tibetan monks, so I'm feeling pretty confident going into this. It's kind of like my nipples are Dalai Lama-approved or something.

The actual tattooing doesn't take that long, and before I know it, I'm standing in front of a full-length mirror on the wall of the tattoo studio, admiring my new reddish brown nipples. They look way better than the originals, which had transformed into veiny flying saucers following pregnancy and breastfeeding. This was my one opportunity to get the nipples I had always wanted and I ran with it.

That's all, folks!
Whoop! There it is! There's actually a lot of texture and variation
in shading, but my camera sucks so you'll have to use your imagination.
And so came the symbolic end to my breast cancer journey -- at the least the procedural part of it, anyway. On October 2, 2013, I met with my breast surgeon to figure out what the fuck we were going to do about my diseased titties. That had been a Wednesday. By the following Monday, I was meeting with a plastic surgeon to draft a game plan for the painstaking, hourslong surgery required to piece me back together immediately after my double mastectomy.

I had choices in how I wanted to go about certain aspects of treatment - whether I wanted implants or to use my own tissue to recreate the breasts. I was able to choose putting off chemo just long enough to enjoy Christmas that year. But in many ways, I never felt like I had a choice. I did what I had to do. So here I was, finally able to make a choice about the color and texture and shading of my new areolas, and I completely froze up. Guess I was wading into unfamiliar territory. However, I'm beyond thrilled with my nipple results. As I've said before, they're the cherries on top of the mammary sundae. (Bet you'll never look at ice cream the same way again.)

There's still one teensy detail I have to take care of: getting my insurance company to reimburse me the $500 I shelled out. Even though the Women's Health And Cancer Rights Act says, "Hey! Assholes! Cough up the dough for reconstruction," insurance companies still try to find ways out of it.  I'll let you know how I make out. (I'm guessing I'll be using the words "Fucking mother fuckers" a lot.)

The Nipplemorphasis

The night before phase 2 of DIEP flap reconstruction
-- aka, nipple reconstruction and fat grafting.
At this point a wardrobe malfunction for me would mean ...
pretty much nothing. I come self-edited!
(November 2014) 
Sweet holy hell, I look like a calico cat! The bruising is from fat grafting.
This is a few days after phase 2.
(November 2014)
About a week out from phase 2; the nipples were rebuilt
using the "origami technique." Eat your heart out, Martha Stewart!
(November 2014)
Approximately 6 months after phase 2. The one advantage of being
 a pasty Irish mofo is your scars fade nicely.
(May 2015)
Immediately following nipple tattooing. If you stare at them long enough,
they'll start spinning and playing calliope music.
(August 2015)
The final product -- I love my new breasticles!
By a week out from tattooing, I was pretty much all healed.
Anyone know of a local strip club that does
 an "Amateur Stripper/Mastectomy Night?"
(August 2015)


  1. Fantastic! Thank you so much for sharing. And congratulations!

  2. I've never said this to another woman before, but your breasts are stunning! Really! Thank you for sharing such a deep and honest look at the reality of breast cancer!

    1. Thank you for reading! I will always try to say the things that need to be said, with perhaps an obscenity tossed in here and there. One of the few rules I have for myself is to be an open book...

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  4. You are one funny lady. Willing to bet there's a lot of POWah in that head and just underneath those new breasticas, too.