Medical tattoos help breast cancer survivors
Sep. 30, 2017
PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — Bobbie Jean Joiner pushed the paper vest from her shoulders and looked at her breasts in a full-length mirror.
The vest was stamped with outlines of pink ribbons, the international symbol of breast cancer. That was appropriate because the 56-year-old Joiner is a breast cancer survivor who had a double mastectomy in 2010. And for the first time in a long time, she liked what she saw when she looked in the mirror: an image of who she was before losing her breasts.
Joiner was moved to tears.
"Amazing," she said. "It looks like I really got nipples, don't it?"
On Monday, the East Milton resident completed another step in her arduous, seven-year battle with the disease. Now cancer-free, Joiner visited a Pensacola permanent makeup clinic to replace what the disease took from her. The medical tattoos recreated the nipples and areolas lost with the mastectomy.
Called areola repigmentation, the process restores the appearance of an areola using a digital machine that sends a colored pigment into the skin with a needle at a rate of 150 times a second.
The specific technique and coloring allow the areola and nipple to appear to be raised or 3-D, giving them a more natural appearance, according to Trinkette Parker, a micropigmentation specialist who has been performing areola repigmentation for 20 years.
A Pace resident and trained cosmetologist, Parker became interested in areola repigmentation after her sister, Piper, died of breast cancer at age 38 in 1996.
Since then, Parker said she has performed approximately 800 to 1,000 areola repigmentations, averaging about 40 to 50 a year.
"It's that finishing touch to look complete," Parker said. "To look like a woman again. This room has seen a lot of tears."
Joiner added herself to that list on Monday, tearing up a few times before Parker even began the nearly two-hour procedure.
"It brings all of the memories back," Joiner said. "It's not an easy journey."
Leading into Breast Cancer Awareness month in October, Parker will provide a free "Finishing Touch Areola Repigmentation" clinic on Sept. 30 at her office, the Permanent Make-Up Clinic at 901 Scenic Highway in Pensacola.
The National Cancer Institute estimated there will be more than 250,000 new female breast cancer cases diagnosed in 2017. The NCI estimates 40,610 will die from the disease this year.
With assistance from other technicians, Parker will aim to tattoo areolas for 30 women at the event. The first-time event was originally planned for Pensacola Beach, and Parker envisioned calling it "Boobs on the Beach," knowing the eye-catching name would attract attention for a process she said is not well known.
"With a mastectomy, they remove the tissue, and what's left is usually a mess and they've been through hell," Parker said.
According to the National Cancer Institute, there is type of mastectomy that preserves a woman's own nipple and areola. A nipple-sparing mastectomy might be an option for some women depending on the size and location of the cancer and the shape and size of the breasts.
Parker no longer charges for areola repigmentation, a procedure that may be covered by insurance but can cost between $500 and $1,500 without insurance, depending on if a client has one or two breasts done. The high cost is one reason Joiner said she waited so long to have it done.
Parker said she's at a place in her career where she doesn't have to charge for areola repigmentations, and she wanted to help other women in memory of her sister who also had a mastectomy.
"I was getting into permanent makeup at that time, and I wanted to get into the medical part of it," Parker said. "They deserve this. What's a couple of hours of my time?"
Before starting the procedure on Joiner — during which she laid on a medical reclining chair as soft instrumental music played in the office on a small stereo — Parker measured where the areola and nipple would be placed on Joiner's breast tissue using a round washer from a home-supply store.
"Do you want it higher?" Parker asked. "I can do anything. We can put them anywhere you like. I want you to be happy."
Joiner solicited opinions from Parker and others in the room, including her 88-year-old mother, Beulah, who has been with Joiner for every appointment since she was diagnosed in November 2010. Eventually, Parker ended up re-drawing the outline of the areola and nipple and they were ready to go.
"I'm glad for her," Beulah Joiner said of her daughter. "Because it seems like it will help her. Help her feelings about herself."
Bobbie Jean Joiner reported minimal pain during the procedure. Parker said some clients don't have sensation in the area after a mastectomy and typically don't feel pain. Parker, wearing a purple surgical mask and gloves to match, applied a numbing agent to Joiner's skin to help alleviate initial discomfort.
Once the procedure started, Joiner said she felt only a vibration from the process that stayed on the surface of the skin and resulted in a small amount of blood that Parker regularly dabbed away.
About 95 percent of the procedure is completed in one office visit. Parker said she sees a client back in six weeks to check that the repigmentation is healing properly.
At the end, Parker applied small pads and tape to Joiner's breasts and gave her a few instructions for home care before sending her on her way.
"I love it," Joiner said. "I love it. I do, I do, I do. Wow. I got real boobs now."
Information from: Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal, http://www.pensacolanewsjournal.com