One of the biggest impacts that can happen from cancer and it’s treatments, is the rapid change in our appearance. In my own instance I initially lost a lot of weight. The steroidal treatment then made me look like a bouncer, and I lost most of my hair. None of that was a great problem for me personally, but I can understand why it might be for many. I am privileged to be able to share the below piece from the wonderful Rosie, who recounts so beautifully why she didn’t feel complete after her own experiences.
“After a bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, something was still missing: two little circles… My nipples. In 2015 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The following year I had a bilateral mastectomy. Looking in the mirror after my operation was an extremely traumatic experience, and I almost threw up when I saw a full-frontal view of myself. Over several months during the saline fills, I watched my breasts slowly reappear, and when we finally swapped the expanders for the implants, I thought I would feel complete. But something was missing. Two little circles… My nipples.
Every day when I got out of the shower, my eyes focused on the incision lines from all the surgeries, the dings and dents from the biopsies, the lumpectomies, and the mastectomy. I focused on imperfections reminding me of all I had gone through. Of course, I felt blessed and thankful that I was alive. Nonetheless, I did not see breasts when I looked in the mirror. Instead, I saw the scars from my journey.
My husband and I had many discussions on whether I should have nipple reconstruction, where a physician would take skin from other parts of my body called donor sites to reconstruct my nipples, or if I would get 3-D tattoos. I decided to go with the tattoos for many reasons, with the most prevalent one being that I did not want to have any more surgeries. After four biopsies, three lumpectomies, countless mammograms, ultrasounds, MRI’s, a double mastectomy, and reconstructive surgery, I did not want to have to recover from another procedure. 3-D nipple tattooing takes one hour from start to finish.
Meet Vinnie, tattoo artist extraordinaire!
On May 3, 2017, we drove three and a half hours from our home in New Jersey to Little Vinnie’s Tattoo Parlor in Finksburg, Maryland. We made it there just moments before our 1 p.m. appointment. I told my husband he had to be my wingman, making sure that each nipple went on each breast in the same spot. The last thing I needed was to have my nipples looking like Igor’s eyes from Young Frankenstein, pointing in opposite directions.
Besides the signature hat that Vinnie always seemed to wear, the one thing that stood out about him were his piercing blue eyes. Over the years, Vinnie has worked with thousands of women to create and complete nipples for breasts that were interrupted by cancer, and I could not help but think that those blue eyes had guided him in each of his works of art. We quickly got to work. He asked me to stand in front of him, and he began to draw circles in the places he thought my nipples might look best. Being the super-prepared, obsessive person that I am, I whipped out photos of my original nipples for comparison, to show him what I was aiming for. After a couple of tweaks, we all agreed as to where they would look best, and Vinnie started the procedure.
A brand-new woman
Many people asked me if getting tattoos hurt. To my surprise, it was mildly uncomfortable but completely foreshadowed by the fun, lighthearted conversation that my husband, Vinnie, and I had during our hour-long visit. Vinnie had kids the same age as ours, and we swapped stories about how much college cost. We joked and talked about many things, which made the hour pass quickly. When he completed my left breast, Vinnie swiveled my chair around so I could take a look in a full-length mirror, and whoa! I could not believe what I saw.
My breast took on an incredible new look, one which I had not seen since before this journey began. I did not see the scars, the dings, the dents, the imperfections… Instead, I saw a real-looking breast, and it made me feel happy, which I hadn’t felt in quite some time. With our thumbs up, Vinnie went on to create a mirror image on my right breast. We thanked Vinnie for his work, and off he went to help the next woman who had come to him to find closure and completion.
For me, and only for me
I do not think I am a superficial person, and I completely recognize that these new nipples are not going to be publicly displayed. I am a married woman and mother in her fifties; I am not going to show them to the world or be in a wet tee-shirt contest. They do not serve a useful function in my life; I will not be nursing and nurturing a baby. The only people likely to see them are myself, my husband, and my physician. Essentially, they are there for me, and only for me.
In a messed-up situation that requires something so extreme as removing your breasts to save your life, there is something nice to be said about having someone who can bring you some confidence and happiness with his incredible talent and piercing blue eyes of perfection. The next day, I got to wake up no longer feeling damaged. I felt complete.”
Rosie Mankes is a life coach, motivational speaker, and author of Find Your Joy and Run With It, a heart-warming memoir about overcoming her second battle with cancer, the transitioning of her mother into an assisted living facility, and the unexpected loss of her brother, all within one year. Rosie’s recovery from these major challenges inspired her to become a life coach, in order to help people pull through significant adversity and life challenges. Rosie is a resident of New Jersey, where she lives with her husband. She is the mother of two grown sons.