Choosing a Tattoo to Conceal Surgical Scars

The number of women choosing reconstruction following a mastectomy has grown dramatically since the1998 Federal Breast Reconstruction Law mandating that reconstruction be covered under private insurance. In the past several years, a small but growing number of women are choosing tattooing as a cosmetic choice following a mastectomy or bilateral mastectomy.

Women having reconstruction may opt for a 3-dimensional nipple(s) created by a professional tattoo artist.Tattoo artists are now playing a new role in breast reconstruction by creating 3 Dimensional Tattoos.

In a press release, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), describes the 3D nipple tattooing as superior looking when compared to a reconstructed nipple.

Some women are having reconstruction without a nipple, and opting for a tattoo over the reconstructed breast(s).

Reconstruction is not for everyone. Many women choose to forgo reconstruction and wear a mastectomy bra with a removable prosthesis. Women, who have had a bilateral mastectomy, may opt to go without a bra.They are comfortable with a flat image. For some women reconstruction is not a viable choice for health reasons.

There are women, who didn’t have reconstruction, that are choosing to get a tattoo. They will use the year or more necessary to let their scars heal before getting a tattoo to find a professional tattoo artist who is experienced in post mastectomy body art, and select an image suitable for their scar area.

They are willing to have the tattoo done in stages, if that is what it takes. They accept the fact that there may be discomfort during the tattooing process.

Cost can be an issue for many women who have gone through the expense of breast cancer treatment. Large, involved tattoos can run as high as $2,000 and are not covered by insurance.

Tattoos I’ve seen are quite detailed and creatively do what they are intended to do.Tattoos turn a scar area into an image that is beautiful and projects a message. Many of the tattoos portray strength, and hope and peacefulness.

Some women, who choose tattoos over reconstruction, often share that they are doing so to take back their bodies.They feel a tattoo that expresses their cancer experience validates what they survived.

The growing interest in tattoos as a cosmetic choice has led to an event in New York City that gives breast cancer survivors the opportunity to meet tattoo artists who specialize in post mastectomy tattoos.

When speaking with a high-end tattoo artist before writing this post, he shared, "While tattoos done be an experienced tattoo artist can be beautiful body art, it is important to remember that there can be a down side to tattooing. Women choosing to have a tattoo need to be informed about possible unanticipated outcomes. Tattooing over a scar area can have its problems.

Tattoos can’t change the texture of a scar. The tattoo will not erase the scar. Most importantly, the skin may hold the ink differently in the scar bed area than on the surrounding skin."

If you are considering getting a tattoo, speak with your surgeon and a plastic surgeon about it first.  They can make you aware of what you need to consider before making a decision.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers the following information about getting a tattoo:

  • A tattoo is a mark or design on the skin. A permanent tattoo is meant to last forever. It is made by a needle and colored ink. The needle puts the ink into the skin. Allergic reactions have been reported from individuals who have received either temporary or permanent tattoos.
  • Think very carefully before getting a tattoo. A  tattoo is difficult to remove and can leave scars.
  • Most states, cities, or towns oversee tattooing or permanent make-up practices, such as using clean equipment. Tattoo inks themselves are cosmetics and by federal law, the colors used in them must be shown to be safe. However, none are approved and the inks used in tattooing have not been strictly regulated by the FDA.

Jean Campbell is a 2x breast cancer survivor and the former founding director of the American Cancer Society New York City Patient Navigator Program in 14 public and private hospitals.She is executive director of a nonprofit organization providing research and resource information and support to women and men newly diagnosed with breast cancer.

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