It’s a topic not a lot of people like to talk about: What happens to your nipples during a mastectomy? For some women, depending on the location and size of a tumor, preserving the nipple isn’t possible. But there are options available for replacement.
The more common approach has been nipple reconstruction, which uses tissue taken from elsewhere on your body. The procedure is usually done three to six months after your mastectomy, giving your reconstructed breasts time to heal and settle into their final position.
There are some disadvantages to the procedure, including having another surgery. The reconstructed nipple also will flatten out over time, losing its projection.
The second option, and one that is gaining popularity, is a 3D nipple tattoo.
A 3D nipple tattoo is exactly what it sounds like. After your reconstructed breasts have had time to heal, you work with a tattoo artist to recreate the appearance of the nipple and areola. The artist works with various pigments and shading to give the nipple a three-dimensional look, as though it were projecting outward.
There are several advantages to this option, including:
- Avoiding surgery: Many patients never get a nipple reconstruction because they don’t want to deal with the hassle or trauma of another surgical procedure. They’re just over it, after going through multiple surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy that takes months, if not years, to complete.
- Simple procedure: With tattooing, the procedure can be over in a couple of hours and often requires nothing for pain management since the skin is often numb from the original surgery.
- Easy healing: Since this isn’t a surgical procedure, there are no new scars to deal with, allowing for a quicker recovery.
- Realism: A tattoo artist can accomplish a realistic look, using pigments and shading, that’s not possible with nipple reconstruction. Tattooing can also be used in combination with nipple reconstruction to achieve more realistic results.
- Psychological: After dealing with the trauma of breast cancer and mastectomy, this is a way to get back to a feeling of normalcy. It can make you feel whole again.
Things To Consider
Most women will be candidates for nipple tattooing. But there are some conditions that can cause problems. Those include:
- Radiation treatments have damaged your breast skin
- Your breast skin is too thin after reconstruction
- You have lymphedema (fluid buildup caused by damage to the lymph system) in the chest area
- You have a history of infections involving the breast area
Insurance should cover the cost of tattoos done for breast restoration. One advantage of working with your plastic surgeon (if they offer the service) is that they will handle the billing claims for you. If you choose a regular tattoo artist, it is likely that you will have to pay the costs upfront and then seek reimbursement from your insurer.
It may also be less intimidating to work with your doctor’s office as part of a continuation of your care – rather than having to seek out a tattoo artist. Some women may be uncomfortable walking into a tattoo parlor. If your care team includes a tattoo artist, this can make the process easier.
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