It took me over 4 years to finally recreate the nipples I’d sacrificed to cancer.
In retrospect, I think a number of factors contributed to the delay, but chief among them was something I hadn’t expected: vanity. Unlike others I know, I had no major attachment to my breasts, so when I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer and also found to have the BRCA2 mutation, the idea of a double mastectomy wasn’t earth-shattering.
I also knew I would reconstruct my breasts, taking great pleasure in the “shiny new rack” jokes I’d tell my friends and colleagues to help put their minds, and mine, at ease. Once the major traumas of chemotherapy, radiation, and major surgery were over, I was at a point that was “manageable.” My disease was in remission, the surgeons had done a terrific job with my breasts, and without nipples, I had a whole new bank of material from which to draw for my jokes. (No nips to slip, I could wear a bikini top of dental floss and not be obscene, “sheer” meant nothing to me, etc.) But privately, I felt different.
Worse yet, I felt guilty for feeling different. When I looked in the mirror I saw breasts that were nicely shaped with soft, evenly-toned skin, despite the ravages of radiation. An obvious piece was missing, but what purpose did it truly serve anymore? I wasn’t breastfeeding. Even my breasts didn’t have any feeling, let alone a nipple, so why did I care? I saw perfectly reasonable. I saw doable. I saw alive. What possible right did I have to want more? “Stop it!” My guilt said to my vanity when it perked up, yearning for a different reflection in the mirror. “What kind of message are you sending to your children? That looks mean everything? That any of your self-esteem should be tied to a stupid piece of skin?” I got a taste of what it might be like to see myself whole again the first time I bought a pair of temporary nipple tattoos. (I say “whole” only as it pertains to me. My definition and mine alone.
For those who live without nipples, without breasts, and find themselves complete, that becomes their own classification.) For $12 I was able to catch a small glimpse into my future of what life might be like with nipples again. It was electrifying. But still I looked at nipple reconstruction as a plastic surgery procedure. As an extra. A superfluous remedy to something that wasn’t truly in need of fixing. So I put it off. And off, and off until at last I convinced myself I didn’t need it at all. I became quite used to not having nipples. But when the opportunity arose over the summer to get 3-D nipple tattoos and have the procedure filmed for Wisdo, I was eager to have it done.
I could never have anticipated my emotional reaction to my new reflection after Amy Black’s expertise gave me a view I hadn’t seen in more than four years: my whole self. I couldn’t stop my tears; she couldn’t stop her hugs. It was a magical afternoon for both of us. Tattoos, even on breasts that haven’t had feeling for years, are still quite painful. That surprised me. And they remained sore for days, but it was well worth it.
I stood and looked at myself in disbelief, that the reflection was truly me. But with each day of healing I began to accept that, yes, these nipples were permanent and that, yes, what I saw in the mirror was really me. My confidence soared. I felt like I could go to the gym and not be worried about changing for fear of someone catching sight of my nipple-less breasts. I felt more attractive, even though I really didn’t care about anyone else’s opinion by my own.
I stood taller, I just felt more like… me. Now, nearly six months later, because the tattoos are so realistic, there are days I exit the shower, pass by a mirror, and forget that my nipples are merely ink in varying shades.
It’s been amazing how quickly I’ve adapted to having something I didn’t even know how much I’d been missing, almost like they were never removed at all. I can’t say I would have been miserable without them, but I can say after getting 3-D nipple tattoos I feel more myself and whole than before. And I refuse to feel any shame about recreating any part of my body taken from me by cancer.