For some women who are breast cancer survivors, a partial or double mastectomy is a necessary part of that survival. Though it may be a life-saving procedure, it can also deeply impact the way a woman feels about her body, her sexuality, and even her sense of identity.
One of the most profound choices a woman will have to make after this procedure is whether or not to undergo breast reconstruction surgery. This is a personal decision that depends on each individual, but many choose to have the surgery in order to feel like themselves again.
For those who make that choice, there are many options available, including one that may be surprising: 3D nipple tattoos.
What Are 3D Nipple Tattoos?
First of all, they are not technically three-dimensional. They sure do look like it, though! 3D nipple tattoos are designed with unique shading and coloring to make these otherwise flat tattoos look like the real deal.
Because of the versatility of tattoo ink, they can be customized one by one to fit the individual’s skin tone and to mimic the look of their real nipples. They can be done by a plastic surgeon who has gone through additional training in tattooing, or even by a licensed tattoo artist.
In most cases, 3D nipple tattoos are done by tattoo artists who have taken a special interest in learning the craft of nipple tattoos. Many feel it is a calling, and they feel honored to be able to help women in need.
Why Some Women Opt for Nipple Tattoos
It’s important to know that nipple tattoos are just one option for women who have had a mastectomy. In some cases, a nipple reconstruction surgery can be done. However, it is often a completely separate procedure from breast reconstruction. This is enough to give some people pause, as they don’t want to go through more surgeries than they absolutely have to.
There are also certain situations where a nipple reconstruction surgery might not be possible or safe. In these situations, the tattoo option is always on the table. Given how realistic they can look, it is a desirable choice, especially if it means one less surgery. Considering all that breast cancer survivors have to go through, it’s completely understandable that many would choose a non-surgical option.
What To Consider
There are some vital considerations when deciding whether nipple reconstruction or a 3D nipple tattoo is right for you. Here are some things that you may want to think about:
- You can get the nipple tattooed, or the areola, or both.
- Think about the color and shade you want
- Nipple tattoos are an alternative to surgery.
- Remember that it is still a tattoo: there will be some discomfort involved.
- There is nothing special you need to do to prepare for the tattoo.
- Aftercare needs are minimal for a nipple tattoo, especially when compared to surgery.
What To Expect When Getting a 3D Nipple Tattoo
One thing that makes some women shy away from the option of getting a nipple tattoo is a general disconnect or lack of knowledge about tattoos in general. So what can you expect when you visit a typical tattoo shop?
You May Be Surprised at the Level of Professionalism
For some women, it can be a little nerve-wracking to go into a tattoo parlor seeking a tattoo of a nipple, especially for those who have never gotten a tattoo before in their lives. It is even more unnerving to enter a shop asking for a sensitive and vulnerable tattoo.
Beckie Gladfelter was diagnosed with breast cancer just shy of her 40th birthday. She told cancer group Patient Power, “I had no idea what to expect inside a tattoo parlor, but it was like going to a salon; I was getting a service and he began by getting to know me. He wanted to know how my cancer was detected and my treatment plan.”
Many people who are unfamiliar with tattoo shops or have their own preconceived notions of what a shop is like are surprised to learn that most are highly professional businesses staffed by expert artists who have spent years or even decades honing their craft.
Beckie described the shop she went to for her tattoos as “such a friendly and welcoming environment.” Nothing like the scary, intimidating atmosphere that is often depicted in movies and pop culture.
A Reputable Shop Is One of the Cleanest Places You Can Go
There are plenty of tattoo horror stories out there, but many more stories of satisfied customers who are elated with their results and have no issues. Finding a reputable tattoo shop is one thing, but you should be looking for signs of cleanliness, such as autoclave machines and tools that are freshly sterilized.
Most importantly, and perhaps obviously, it should look clean and tidy in the shop. Tattoo artists will not be insulted if you ask about their cleaning procedures, and will most likely be happy to show you what they do.
Some Tattoo Artists Specialize in Nipple Tattoos
Though it isn’t exactly a specialty that most artists are called to create regularly, there are some tattoo artists who have felt a calling to help women who need help to feel like themselves again.
Some artists even go as far as practicing on themselves to make sure that they are doing the tattoos justice!
Like any kind of tattoo, you may want to ask around to see who has done these types of tattoos before. Any decent tattooist will have a portfolio that you can look at, whether it is online or in a physical album.
How Much Do Nipple Tattoos Cost?
The pricing of 3D nipple tattoos can vary from artist to artist. The cost is typically in the range of $300-$350 for a single nipple, and around $600 for two nipples.
Believe it or not, some insurance plans actually cover the cost of nipple tattoos! Plastic surgeons can even write prescriptions for them. You can ask your doctor if they do this.
The insurance specifics are something to look into on your own, as each insurance plan is different and may have different stipulations. In most cases, if you are going to an independent tattoo artist, you will have to submit a reimbursement form to your insurance company. This is even if they do cover the cost.
All things considered, this is a low cost for regaining some confidence and sense of self, especially given the short and simple recovery time.
A Different Kind of Tattoo
For some, it’s not as important to get back to who they were before their mastectomy as it is to evolve into a different person altogether. After all, it’s fair to say that after battling cancer, no one comes out of that experience the same way they went in.
These people often choose to get other types of tattoos to honor their journey. Getting a tattoo that covers a mastectomy scar is a common experience that many breast cancer survivors share. Though not covered under insurance, many women feel these tattoos are well worth the cost.
Often referred to as a ‘mastectomy tattoo,’ these works of art are truly inspiring. The themes are often feminine and floral, or powerful and strong. Many women view mastectomy tattoos as a way to embrace who they are and reclaim their feminism.
Common themes and ideas include butterflies, lotus flowers, inspirational quotes, and a phoenix rising from the ashes.
The Other Option: Nipple Reconstruction Surgery
Nipple tattoos are not the only available choice. Patients who have undergone a mastectomy also have the option of getting nipple reconstruction surgery.
How Does Nipple Reconstruction Surgery Work?
This type of surgery is reserved for women who have had mastectomies, or sometimes for people who are in accidents that cause damage to or remove the nipples. Though there are a few different techniques, the general idea is the same.
In nipple reconstruction surgery, the surgeon uses skin grafts from skin near the breasts to create a new nipple. Sometimes surgeons will use a technique called “nipple sharing.” This is when they are able to take a portion of the other areola (if there is another viable nipple/areola) to create the new nipple.
What To Expect
A nipple reconstruction surgery is a fairly straightforward, routine procedure. In the vast majority of cases, is it an outpatient procedure that doesn’t require a hospital stay. If you get this surgery, you will be able to get up and walk out of the office an hour later.
Your doctor will give you instructions specific to your procedure prior to the surgery. When you go into the office or hospital, the surgeon will mark your breasts with a marker to plot out the locations of the incisions.
Nipple reconstruction is typically done with a local anesthetic. If the skin is being taken from another part of your body, that area will be numbed as well.
In some cases, doctors may suggest that you go under general anesthesia. If this is the case, your doctor will surely let you know in advance so you know what to expect and prepare for.
The procedure is very quick and can take as little as 15 minutes or up to an hour. If you only had local anesthesia for the procedure, you will be able to go home right after. For general anesthesia, the hospital staff will want you to stay for a while to be monitored.
Pros to Getting Nipple Reconstruction Surgery
- The nipple will physically protrude out of the chest, which adds to a realistic look.
- It is a relatively simple outpatient procedure.
- The procedure takes very little time: 15 minutes to an hour.
- There are a few different options for how to rebuild the nipple.
- There isn’t much pain, due to the lack of sensation that usually occurs in the breast area after a mastectomy.
Cons to Getting Nipple Reconstruction Surgery
- Like any surgery, there are a few risks, such as rejection, poor positioning, or nipple flattening.
- Even if there are no complications, it is likely that the nipple will flatten over time.
- You will experience some swelling initially.
- The recovery time is longer than a tattoo, typically four to six weeks.
- To get the exact color you want, you may need to get a tattoo in addition to the surgery anyway. Because of this, many people choose to simply get a tattoo.
Paying for Nipple Reconstruction
Most insurance plans will cover the cost of nipple reconstruction in some way, shape, or form. Still, it can be a bit difficult to navigate this process.
Since nipple reconstruction is a separate procedure from breast reconstruction or augmentation, it is billed as such. Sometimes there is the small challenge of having to go through a second insurance authorization, which can create some red tape.
As always, it’s a good idea to check with your insurance company beforehand, and get information in writing.
How To Decide What Is Right for You
There’s no way to be certain that you are making the best choice, but it’s a good idea to think about it long and hard. In either case, the results are fairly permanent.
For many people, the act of getting a tattoo has a cathartic effect. It can symbolize the start of something new at the end of a hard-fought battle. Since the process involves working with an artist, some women find it soothing to be able to share their stories with someone else.
In general, many tattoo enthusiasts joke that getting a tattoo is akin to going to therapy. The same may be said about those who get 3D nipple tattoos, or who get other ink to cover mastectomy scars.
But for those who are hoping for both a realistic look and a realistic feel, a nipple reconstruction procedure is the best bet. Despite longer recovery times and potential risks, it is the only way to truly get a result that is actually three-dimensional.
After overcoming a scary diagnosis, women do have options to make themselves feel feminine and beautiful. The choice between a 3D nipple tattoo, a mastectomy tattoo, and a nipple reconstruction procedure is a choice that only the individual woman can make for herself.
Whatever the choice, there is an entire community of people who want to help (including us here at Maxine), who know exactly what you are going through, and who are there to give you the support and information you need.