DECATUR – Tattoos after breast cancer mean different things, depending on whom you ask.
When survivor and CNA caretaker Lori Cox had a client mention regret over not getting a tattoo, she thought of the colorful designs or sayings many women have tattooed on their chest after surgery.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is butterflies and heart,” she said. “And I asked 'what would you have tattooed?' And she busted out laughing. “Nipples, honey.' ”
Cox had both breasts removed, the right in 2007 and the other in 2013, after she was diagnosed with cancer and tested positive for the BRCA gene. She had reconstruction surgery and was given a clean bill of health, but never felt complete.
“I get out of the shower and see my reflection and it’s like a blank slate and that was the only thing missing,” Cox said.
But last month, Cox found the missing piece under a needle – tattooed areolas and nipples.
“This is a pretty areola pink color,” cosmetologist Tess Leckrone said, holding up the light bottle of ink at Cox's appointment.
She mixes ink colors to match a client's skin tone, always going lighter at first. Leckrone showed Cox her guide – a small metal plate with hole in the center. But it's just an outline, because she tattoos outside the lines. A perfect circle areola and nipple would look unnatural. She goes over the large scar left from the surgery lightly because it will soak up ink more than the surrounding skin.
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All of these are techniques she's applied over two decades of helping to restore a woman's sense of femininity after losing her breasts.
“I don’t think ladies that have reconstructive surgery know about it,” Leckrone said.
Nipple and areola tattoos can be done by doctors, tattoo artists or cosmetologists like Leckrone. Insurance companies may not cover the procedures done outside a doctor's office. Leckrone knows this and keeps her prices low, $200 for each breast, because insurance won't pay for the tattoos.
“If I can help every one of these ladies to feel better after everything they went through, I don’t charge them that much,” Leckrone said. “I just want them to feel better for themselves.”
Leckrone has been doing cosmetic tattoos such as permanent makeup and scar camouflaging since 1993. You'll find examples of permanent makeup on her website, but not the breast tattoos. She doesn't advertise the procedure much, but clients come to her through word of mouth and references from traditional tattoo artists.
Patients have to wait six months after their final treatment for the skin to be ready for tattoos. It can take up to several sessions, six weeks of healing between each, for Leckrone and the client to find the perfect shade.
“I’m on the other side now and I want to live life to the fullest,” Cox said. “If I can do something to feel better about myself, why not?”
Looking down halfway through her appointment, Cox peaked at her new nipple while Leckrone worked on the other breast.
“Wow, that's pretty amazing,” she said. “I feel a finality, definitely something was missing before,” Cox said.