8 June 2014, 11:38

Tattoo artist helping women with breast cancer

Tattoo artist helping women with breast cancer

Most girls who walk in Little Vinnie's tattoo parlor in Finksburg, Maryland, aren't here for a butterfly or a Japanese style koi carp. They are here for nipples – the tattoo shop is the last resort for women with breast cancer seeking for a three-dimensional nipple tattoo by the owner, Vinnie Myers.

Usually, after a woman who had cancer undergoes a mastectomy and breast reconstruction, doctors perform another operation that can rebuild the size and shape of the natural breast by using her own body tissue or implants, but the darker, sensitive skin of the nipple and areola is usually removed entirely.

Thus, tattooing the new ones is a well-known practice but the problem is making the nipple look realistic.

"Traditionally, most nipple-areola tattoos have been created using lighter ink for the areola and a central circle of darker ink for the nipple," said Dr. Eric G. Halvorson, a plastic surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "Although this method produces a satisfactory result, we recently used a new, three-dimensional technique inspired by a tattoo artist, with improved results," Livescience reports.

Nipple-areola tattoos are usually performed more than three months following breast reconstruction, Halvorson said.

So now more doctors are referring patients to tattoo artists who can create realistic-looking nipples and 3-D nipple tattoos.

Artists get the effect by mixing colors and using shading.

Vinnie Myers started with colorful, one-of-a-kind tattoos, but 13 years ago met a woman who worked with a plastic surgeon.

"She told me they were having problems tattooing their breast cancer patients and asked me if I would come in and help correct some of them," Myers tolf The NYT.

"The results were less than what he felt was adequate … So I went down to his office and fixed the ones that he had started," Myers says. "The word slowly kind of got out. Next thing you know, it's all I'm doing."

"I get to see tattoos done by different doctors from all over the world, and it never ceases to amaze me how bad most of them are," Myers said. "I've seen tattoos that don't match a woman's skin tone or her existing areola, nipples that are so large and out of proportion they take up half the breast, or nipples that are positioned so far on the sides they are almost in the armpits. Doctors have really dropped the ball on this," he said.

As Myers became a nipple-pro, more and more women were coming to see and his own designs were abandoned. In 2010 Vinnie tried to return to his tattoos, but one morning his sister called - the girl had breast cancer. And Vinnie took it as a sign.

Today a waiting list to him is from 4 to 6 months and ( "the demand is always going to be there, unfortunately") so he asked his 19 year-old daughter Anna to help – she is to graduate soon and will help her dad.

He charges $600 to $800 for his nipple tattoos and some procedures are reimbursed by insurance companies.
Myers does about 35 to 45 nipple tattoos a week and even expanded his parlor with a few rooms to accomodate everyone.

Myers says the best part is the reactions from his customers.

"By the time they see me, they've been through so much, and this is the final step. So once they leave here, they're finished with the whole breast cancer journey," he says. "You do get to see that happiness and that joy that the women have, knowing that their journey is over."

The number of women who seek immediate reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy has increased from about 10 percent in the 1980s to 90 percent today, the Stony Brook School of Medicine reports.

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