More than 230,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year alone, many of whom will have to undergo mastectomies in order to rid themselves of the cancer. During a mastectomy, doctors removes the diseased tissue inside the breast, and are often forced to remove the nipples and areolae in the process. Once breast reconstruction surgery is done, many breast cancer survivors must learn to live with their reconstructed breasts, often sans nipples and areolae. While this may seem like a small sacrifice to endure for being able to have a life-saving procedure, in many cases it leaves breast cancer survivors feeling mangled, less beautiful, less feminine, less whole.
This is where tattoo artist Vinnie Myers steps in.
For the last 14 years, Myers — a retired army medic who was once renowned for his tattoo artistry — has focused his career on allowing women to feel like themselves again, after having gone through the numerous rounds of chemo, radiation, and surgeries it takes to rid their bodies of breast cancer, he told the Today Show.
“My mission is to make women look good in the mirror, naked. I want them to feel good when they’re looking at themselves.”
Myers’ foray into nipple tattooing began in 2001, after he met with a woman who worked at a plastic surgeon’s office, and who was disappointed with the doctor’s nipple reconstruction effort — which, in most cases, involves a light version of a tattoo, by a doctor or nurse, that resembles a small, flat disc. Myers met with the doctor in question, and began working out of his practice, tattooing nipples and areolas on breast cancer survivors. Soon after, other doctors wanted him to work with them. Eventually, they just began sending their patients to Myers’ own tattoo shop, Little Vinnie’s Tattoos, in Finksburg, Maryland.
After Lillie Shockney, the administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Breast Center, learned of Myers’ talent, she made an appointment to have her own tattoos done. Thoroughly impressed with him, Shockney used her reach and influence to ensure other breast cancer survivors knew about Vinnie Myers. About five years ago, however, Myers was so busy, he says, and it began to take its toll on him. That was when he decided he just couldn’t do it any longer.
“It got super busy, busier than I really wanted it to be. That’s when I kind of decided I wasn’t going to do it anymore. And the day that I decided to stop is the day my sister called me and told me she had breast cancer. That was on a Monday. I decided, ‘This is a sign that I’ve got to keep doing this.’ “
Since that day, Vinnie’s shop has been turned upside down. More than 8,000 women have come to Myers for his help. He’s taken on two other tattoo artists to help him with the growing list of breast cancer survivors seeking his help, and he’s currently booked up until next spring. Myers says he understands the importance for women to look “normal” after going through such an ordeal, as many breast cancer survivors tend to look at their reconstructed breasts and see only disease.
“When you’re looking at those breasts, all you see are the scars, and all you’re reminded of is cancer. So when you put this finishing touch on there, it distracts your eye from all those other imperfections because you have something to look at that’s very pleasing, and it’s an incredibly emotional finishing touch.”
One of the breast cancer survivors that sought out Myers’ help was Karen Scotchlas, of North Carolina. A single mother of three, Scotchlas says that the cancer diagnosis didn’t terrify her as much as how she would look and feel afterwards. According to NBC New York, once she had the tattoos done, she felt like a completely new woman.
“It’s such an incredible feeling to look in the mirror and you feel like you’re whole and you’re a woman again. It completely gave me my confidence back.”
Myers, who is a father of four, proudly tells Today that one day, his 21-year-old daughter plans to follow in his footsteps, helping breast cancer survivors with that final important part of the healing process.
[Image Credit: Jared Wickerham / Getty Images]