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“Do you want to see my 3-D nipple tattoo?”

Two years ago I could not even have conceived of such a question, let alone asked it, and I certainly would never have opened my shirt to show off my nipple. I have always been the shy one at the gym who awkwardly puts her bra on, facing the lockers. I refused to flash my breasts as I strolled down Bourbon Street when it was the “thing to do.” And that one time my daughter’s high school boyfriend whispered, after we had been walking in the freezing rain, that I was “smuggling raisins”? I almost died of embarrassment.

But these days, I have very little modesty. Breast cancer seems to have scared the modesty right out of my boobs. No wonder, considering the strangers who have examined my breasts in the last two years: technicians, oncologists, nurses, physician’s assistants, plastic surgeons, interns, aides. Somewhere around month 1 into this process, the modesty just disappeared.

So it was really no big deal that I found myself topless in an examination room at my plastic surgeon’s office, in front of Trent and Paul, two super nice guys from Baltimore. Paul had an uncanny resemblance to ZZ Top. Trent had the most reassuring smile and sat with his paints and tools. Both had “sleeve” tattoos, and plenty more that I could not see. There was lots of explaining, and then the three of us stood in front of a full length mirror, assessing the color, size, and shape of my left nipple so that they could match it with a tattoo on the right. When all was decided, “before” pictures were taken. A half an hour later, it was all over (yeah, it hurts, but not too badly,) then care of the tattoo was explained, and “after” pictures taken.

Trent and Paul are part of the Vinnie Myers team -and they come to Boston a few times a year at the request of plastic surgeons from Brigham and Women’s hospital to see mastectomy patients with reconstructed breasts who need nipple tattoos, or repairs of mangled nipple tattoos that the not-quite-so-talented have done, because they are, simply, the best. And if you think nipple tattooing might get boring, think again. Every nipple is a little bit different, and every patient comes in with a different personality and different concerns, so every case presents a new challenge.

So these days, I have been asking everyone (actually only the females in my life) if they want to see my 3-D nipple tattoo for one reason only- it is amazing. Both my daughters have declined with a conversation that went something like this:

Me: “I got a tattoo yesterday.”

Daughter: “Really? No way! That’s so cool!”

Me: “Not really, it was just a 3-D nipple tattoo on my reconstructed breast.”

Daughter: “Bummer, mom, I thought you were going to tell me you got a sleeve. Sleeves are cool.”

Me: “Would you like to see my tattoo? I could Facetime you.”

Daughter: “Uh, no. I really don’t want to see your nipple, mom.”

But my girlfriends are very eager to check out my nipple. We slip into the bathroom (because I have not totally lost my mind), and I lift up my shirt on the right side (no bra necessary these days) with zero modesty, and we ooh and ah about how utterly perfect and three-dimensional my nipple is atop of my reconstructed breast. It is art, stunning to behold in its illusion, because it is actually very much flat. When I look in the mirror, knowing it is one-dimensional, even I see a regular, three-dimensional nipple.  Weird.

I did not need to buy Mike a pair of 3-D glasses after all.

And just because I know your imagination is going wild, here’s how it looks (and these are NOT my breasts, FYI, because as I said before, I am not crazy- these breasts (before and after) are from the Vinnie Myers website,) but this is really how good the nipples look:

before and after 3-D nipple tattoos on a double mastectomy patient

So Trent and Paul are real artists, and they are changing women’s lives. But unfortunately, not everyone who needs it will get a 3-D nipple tattoo—right now, it is only for those that can afford it (aside from the pro bono cases that Trent and Paul are able to take on.) Apparently insurance will cover a tattoo if performed by a doctor in a hospital, but not if performed by a tattoo artist.

So most people have it done in the doctor’s office.  And I can tell you, doctors may be wonderful at what they do, but that does not make them good tattoo artists, and they generally don’t do a 3-D nipple like an expert does. There is simply no comparison between a 3-D tattoo and a tattoo performed in the doctor’s office. It doesn’t make sense for insurance companies not to pay for the experts to do it– it is cheaper in the end, and more efficient.  In one case, I heard that an insurance company had to pay many thousands of dollars to the doctor to get the tattoo right after multiple attempts.  The Vinnie Myers team often repairs tattoos that have been mangled.

To have my 3-D nipple tattoo cost $1,000.  So far, not a penny has been covered by insurance (though we will see what happens as I intend on making a claim outside of network.) It makes me angry and sad that this 3-D procedure, which has made me feel so much more “normal” after reconstruction surgery, is currently really only available to the affluent. And with the repeal of Obamacare and replacement in the hands of these men, things are surely only going to get worse for women, not only with breast cancer coverage, but with regard to reproductive rights and, it seems, just about every other women’s health issue.

It is simply not right.

My 3-D tattoo was the end of a long road—two full years between diagnosis, mastectomy, chemo, radiation, reconstruction and finally, a 3-D tattoo. This two-year journey tested my patience, my courage, my perserverance and my sense of humor. I feel blessed that I had the most amazing and talented team of oncologists, nurses, plastic surgeons, and 3-D nipple tattoo-ers, that the best of the best were available to me, that I had amazing insurance, and the cash to pay what was not covered.

I only wish all other women with breast cancer could be so lucky.

 

 

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