3D Nipple Tattoo Helps Breast Cancer Survivor Feel Like Herself Again

By Mary Frances Emmons, Editorial Contributor

Kendra Bryant just did not feel right.

“I was having episodes where my speech was slurred — my whole body was just off,” she recalls. At work one day, her balance was so shaky she had to hold on to the wall to walk up the stairs. A coworker cruelly suggested she was drunk.

Mystified, her primary care doctor ordered a wide-ranging battery of tests, seeking any clues about Bryant’s odd symptoms. She also gave her a talking-to. “She said, ‘I see you haven’t had a mammogram, and I’ve asked you several times. You need to get this.’ ” So they added it to her list.

Shortly after she finished the tests, the single mother of three young adults had a diagnosis: multiple sclerosis, a serious but nonfatal disease of the nervous system that can present a puzzling array of symptoms.

Just a week later, Bryant discovered she had an additional complication: breast cancer. It had metastasized to her bloodstream — a complete mastectomy of the right breast was her only option.

Bryant, now 47, knew she was facing an ordeal. But what followed would test her to the max, until a chance meeting with a physician assistant helped put her on the road to recovery.

A Long, Hard Road

Bryant’s mastectomy, at a hospital in the Tampa Bay area, was successful. But then things went off the rails.

Her MS medication weakened her immune system and interfered with healing. “I would have a surgery, go home and bust back open,” she says. Her wound did not drain properly. In and out of the hospital, she picked up a staph infection.

“It was exhausting,” she says. “When I looked in the mirror, I would just cry.”

Kendra Bryant tattoo

Eventually she healed enough for a breast implant. “It came out terrible,” she says of her lopsided results. “I did not get the look I was expecting.” She had breast reduction on her left side, but that left her feeling even less like herself.

“It was just a lot,” Bryant says. She fell into depression and avoided going outdoors. Money was tight. Family helped, accompanying her to appointments and chipping in on bills. “My daughter said, ‘Mom, you’re beautiful, and you’re still here when some people are not — you have to be grateful for that.’ I said I am grateful — I just don’t feel like me.”

Bryant kept the implant for two years, “but it kept bothering me so bad I couldn’t sleep on it. Sometimes it felt like it was up under my arm. Finally I just wanted to get it out,” she says.

She tried to find a new surgeon, but insurance stymied that until her primary doctor referred her to Dr. Deepak K. Naidu, a plastic surgeon with Bayfront Health Medical Group Aesthetic and Reconstructive Surgery, part of the Orlando Health medical system.

At their first consultation, Dr. Naidu offered options for reconstruction — Bryant wanted no more implants — including a procedure that would rebuild the breast with her own abdominal tissue.

That was her choice, and the surgery was successful. But it was his physician assistant Melissa Koliha who would really put Bryant back on the path to feeling like herself again.

A New Kind of Nipple

Mastectomies save lives. But often at a cost of not just breast tissue but also the nipple and areola — the ring of pigmented skin around the nipple— if the tumor is too close to the nipple. While nipples can be reconstructed, patients can wait years before they are healed enough for another surgery, and the results are often not realistic and tend to flatten out over time.

Even though I have scars, I look past the scars. I’m happy. And I love my results. – Kendra Bryant

One relatively new option is 3D nipple tattoos. Artists use pigment and shading to create the illusion of a three-dimensional nipple, resulting in a surprisingly realistic look. Some hospitals refer patients to tattoo artists in the community; few have artists on staff. Insurance will generally cover the procedure, but most tattoo artists don’t know how to bill for that, and many don’t follow through.

A 19-year cardiac veteran, Koliha was new to plastic surgery. But she wasn’t just a PA — she’s also a breast cancer survivor who understood what Bryant was going through.

“You don’t really want to keep going to new places and taking your shirt off,” Koliha says. “We were helping patients get through a pretty traumatic experience — mastectomy and reconstruction — and the last step to feel whole and complete is to get a nipple. I felt like we were getting them to the 1-yard line, but we couldn’t finish the job.”

Koliha’s solution: Learn to do it herself. She took a course from a local artist, practicing on the plasticized “fake skin” that all tattoo students learn on. When Bryant heard Koliha was working on getting licensed, she told her, “When you’re ready, I’ll be your first.”

An Amazing Job

Koliha had no previous artistic training, but understanding anatomy was a big help. “I know how things should look,” she says. After many hours of practice, she called Bryant to say she was ready. And insurance would cover it.

Bryant’s case was challenging because she still had her own nipple on the left. “So I had to match it up to her native nipple,” she said, adding to the pressure.

Bryant, on the other hand, was no stranger to tattooing. “I have, like, eight big ones,” she says with a laugh. At first Koliha worried she was hurting Bryant. Tattooing in general does come with some temporary discomfort, but breast cancer survivors often have no sensation in the region. Bryant told her, “Do you see all these tattoos on my leg? You got this, I’m fine.”

The process usually takes two to three hours. When they were done, Bryant looked in the mirror “and just squealed,” Koliha says. “My nurse was crying, Kendra was crying, it was really sweet. When patients see themselves afterward, it’s like they’re re-energized and reinvigorated — their whole aura is changed.”

Even after a year of creating 3D nipples, Koliha says she’s “nervous as hell every time. But as you keep layering on the color and shading, it all just comes to life. By the end even I’m sometimes surprised.”

Afterward, Bryant stopped by a cousin’s house and bared all. “She said, ‘You got a nipple!’ ’’ Bryant told her it was a tattoo. “She said, ‘Girl, whoever did that did an amazing job. I could not tell.’ ”

Today Bryant feels satisfied at last. “Even though I have scars, I look past the scars. I’m happy. And I love my results.”

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