Only twice in her three-year dance with breast cancer did Rosanne McLaughlin cry — when she was diagnosed and when, after a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, she looked in the mirror to see her femininity restored.
With Vinnie Myers’ handiwork, McLaughlin said, "I looked whole again."
Myers isn’t a doctor. But the Maryland-based tattoo artist’s 3-D nipple tattoos have refined — some say redefined — breast cancer reconstruction.
Areola repigmentation is the final stage of a painful, protracted healing process; "the finishing touch," said McLaughlin, 52, who lives in Park City. It may seem a small thing, but for many it’s a pride-restoring badge of survivorship, and Myers is the best in the business.
"He’s amazing," said Leigh Neumayer, a breast surgeon at Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City who refers patients to Myers. "The pictures you see on his website — [his tattoos] are that good, or better."
As breast cancer rates have risen, mortality rates have fallen due to advances in medicine. But even science has its limits.
Mastectomies are brutal, disfiguring surgeries. And while breast reconstruction has improved, fewer than 1 in 4 women with insurance choose to have it done.
It often requires multiple surgeries, carries the risk of infection and ends with varied results. And unless you’re a candidate for so-called "skin sparing surgery," which preserves nipples, you’re left with two colorless and scarred "Barbie" breasts, said McLaughlin.
"Barbie just had mounds," she said, "no nipples or anything."
‘It means you’re done’ » McLaughlin was diagnosed in 2010 during a routine mammogram. She had just moved from Seattle to Utah and taken a job as a FedEx dispatcher.
When she got the results, she tearfully phoned her partner of 22 years, Michael, an airline pilot who was at work.
"I cried because I felt bad about having to tell him with him being so far away," she said. "But after that, it was like, ‘OK, what do we have to do to get through this?’ "
Breast cancer treatment decisions are personal, none of them easy, said McLaughlin, who is at peace with, but sometimes doubted, her decision to have her breasts removed.
Doctors in Seattle and at Huntsman gave her options, and at first she leaned toward a lumpectomy.
But her cancer was aggressive and had already spread outside the milk ducts. "I read so many stories on the Internet about women who had one breast removed and three or five years later it was in the other breast," she said. "I just thought, ‘I don’t want to do this again.’ "
Like many women, she had her reconstructive surgery done during her mastectomy. After six months of chemotherapy, she was declared cancer-free.
But it took two years and two more surgeries to perfect her implants — including a failed attempt to surgically build nipples — before she was healed enough to get a tattoo.
It is the one procedure she never gave a second thought.
"I got used to looking at myself because they were that way for so long," McLaughlin said. "But that tattoo was always on my list of things to do. Just getting there was not fast enough, because it means you’re done."
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