How Nipple Tattoos Gave Me Back The Power Of Choice
For me, breast cancer came with a bilateral mastectomy. I was 35-years-old with an aggressive type of cancer and my oncologist believed I was at risk of developing a new primary cancer in my breast tissue. Removal of both breasts was my best chance at survival. What are two breasts when you are facing the possibility of death? I had three very young kids and a strong desire to live so in the context of everything that was happening around me, it wasn’t a difficult “choice”. I put the word choice in quotations because it didn’t feel like much of a choice at the time — it was an aggressive treatment for aggressive cancer. It had to be done.
The surgeon who did my double mastectomy was extremely kind. She stayed late to fit me in. She told me we women needed to stick together and support each other. She made an unbearable process bearable and I will be forever grateful for her gentleness.
During our meeting, my mind was spinning. I was told that the mastectomy would not just leave me flat as I had imagined, but concave. Since I had to have radiation post-surgery — which would delay any chance of reconstruction for more than a year — leaving my nipples intact was not an option. They would both have to be removed.
After waking up from my mastectomy on March 6, 2015, I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror. I felt like I had lost yet another part of myself to this awful disease. I had no hair; I had gained weight and now I had no breasts or nipples. I mourned this loss more than I anticipated. This was my body and yet it felt foreign. I felt dissected, raw, ravaged.
I know many of my cancer sisters embrace being flat and they look beautiful and confident and amazing. But for me, I knew immediately that reconstruction was something I needed. My doctors said I had to wait a year and so I marked that in my head and continued on the slow road to recovery. But while waiting for my year to come, the doctors found that my cancer had spread to my brain. Suddenly, I was terminal.
My doctors created a list of new treatments — stereotactic brain radiation and a craniotomy, followed by more targeted brain radiation. They didn’t give me much hope of living for more than two years. Faced with this devastating news, reconstruction was nowhere near the top of my list of thoughts. But as time went on, it was still a nagging worry and my body still felt incomplete to me. My doctor and I made a deal: if I continued to be stable for two years post-treatment, she would approve reconstruction.
When I met that two-year mark, it was an incredible feeling. I was referred to yet another amazing surgeon, Dr. Brown, and we began the reconstruction process. With three surgeries in one year, it wasn’t an easy process. But at this point, I had lived flat for four years and I was ready. Each step, each surgery, each visit to have my expanders filled to stretch my skin felt like a choice I was making for myself. It wasn’t surgery to survive, it was surgery to thrive. I was getting a choice and that felt so empowering again.
With clothes on, I looked like everyone else and it was a nice feeling. My reconstruction was completed a year ago and it has improved the quality of my life. But there was still one piece missing for me. Even after five years, looking in the mirror and seeing no nipples felt jarring. I didn’t think I had any options and just had to live with it. But as I started talking more openly about it, I found out that a friend from my online community Rethink Breast Cancer, had her nipples tattooed on. We chatted, she sent pictures and I was in awe! Not only was this a beautiful option, but it was available locally and within my budget.
When I met with Evie Bacopulos, the tattoo artist behind Tattoos By Evelyn, and started discussing what I wanted, I once again felt that strange feeling of power. It was a small but persistent feeling of joy at having a choice, at getting to pick how my body would look. When I was finally able to look in the mirror and see the result of Evie’s work on my chest, I was speechless. I had nipples! I had 3D nipples that looked real! The emotions just poured out of me as I took in the sight I hadn’t seen in so many years and thought I’d never see again.
As cancer patients, cosmetics are not often at the top of the list. As cancer patients, choice is often removed from the equation. As cancer patients, we are often told, not asked. After so many years, it is an incredible feeling to once again put myself first. I don’t know how much longer I will have with this life, but I want to spend it spreading this message of hope, of choice, of self-love to the women and men affected by cancer. We all deserve to regain the power to choose. – By Adriana Capozzi