Tattooing for a Cause: The Finishing Touch that Heals
In recognition of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, here is IAW Member Tara Dunsmore’s inspirational story of survival & triumph.
Tara Dunsmore’s story is an all-too-familiar one. After all, according to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, a woman in the US is diagnosed with breast cancer every two minutes. But it is her journey from breast cancer survivor to someone who offers other women like her the finishing touch they need to feel whole again that captured our attention. And it’s a story we wanted to share with you.
“I never thought I would get breast cancer. I am a Nurse. I have no family history,” says Ms. Dunsmore, a mother of three living in Raleigh, NC. “I was diagnosed in 2012. I had a lumpectomy and a double mastectomy, and then immediate reconstructive surgery that included tissue expanders.”
After months of reconstructive surgeries and appointments that included “fill ups,” Ms. Dunsmore’s plastic surgeon talked to her about nipple reconstruction, something she had not given much thought to. When he mentioned the option of “areola tattooing,” she was floored.
“I had never heard of nipple tattooing but it was an option I wanted to explore,” recalls Ms. Dunsmore. “I asked my doctor to recommend a local expert but he didn’t have anyone to refer me to other than a nurse in his office who had received limited training.”
After doing her own research, Ms. Dunsmore did find a tattoo artist in Maryland, one who was an expert in areola tattooing. But she didn’t want this very personal procedure done by a man in a tattoo parlor. “I didn’t want that to be the final chapter of my journey,” she said.
Ultimately deciding to have the tattoo done by the nurse, Ms. Dunsmore was disappointed in the technique due to the limited options when it came to size and color. “I had only three color choices: bubble gum pink, chocolate brown or nude,” she recalls. Not long after her own procedure in March 2013, she made the decision to become trained as a Certified Areola Tattoo Artist so she could provide other breast cancer survivors with the results they deserved. She hasn’t looked back since.
“I received intense, one-on-one training from a master. It all came natural to me; I just knew what I was doing,” she says. In April of 2014, Ms. Dunsmore founded Pink Ink Tattoo LLCC, where she combines her new-found skills as a Certified Areola Tattoo Artist and her medical knowledge as a Nurse with her very personal experience as a breast cancer survivor.
When she informed her plastic surgeon of her training, he generously offered her the use of his office, Davis Plastic Surgery in Raleigh, NC, to see patients. There, clients come to her from all over the state, as well as from outside of North Carolina. Ms. Dunsmore also travels to other plastic surgeons’ offices throughout the state to provide post-mastectomy women with realistic-looking, 3-D nipple tattooing, as well as scar camouflage and other techniques. ”I free-hand everything, the areola and the 3-D nipple, allowing clients to decide what size they desire,” she says.
Often, says Ms. Dunsmore, breast cancer survivors are so grateful to be alive they feel as if they shouldn’t ‘complain’ about not having nipples. “I had one patient who came to me 17 years after her mastectomy!” she recalls. “Some feel they just want to move forward. But these women deserve to feel complete.” She is thrilled to be able to offer patients what she refers to as “their final touch,” and help bring their difficult and emotional journeys to a close.
Ms. Dunsmore, who also still practices as a Nurse, says the tattooing procedure usually takes about two hours. The patient is awake, and together, they discuss the details of the tattoo. She carefully mixes the precise color they want and patients can choose from a variety of shapes. There is not much pain involved, says Ms. Dunsmore. She sends her patients home with an after-care kit that includes sterile bandages and ointments, etc. Many insurance companies cover the procedure, she adds.
As one of the very few areola tattoo specialists in the country, Ms. Dunsmore plans to make her services available to even more women. “I hope to travel to other states and bring my services to more breast cancer survivors,” she says. “I want women to travel to me and me to them to have a different experience, an emotional, sister-like bond because this is about surviving something that tried to kill us. The last step in the reconstruction process should be a wonderful, meaningful experience.”
Committed to giving back to her community, Ms. Dunsmore is involved in a number of fundraising events throughout the year and recently provided her services at no charge to three women who wouldn’t have been able to afford areola tattooing.
“This is definitely a passion not a business or service, that’s how I feel about Pink Ink Tattoo and why I love doing this. It’s so personal,” says Ms. Dunsmore. “It’s also bittersweet. I’m happy to hear of someone who needs my help but that also means there’s one more woman who has this dreadful disease.”
We want to hear from you! Are you a breast cancer survivor? What has your journey been like? What advice do you have for other women dealing with breast cancer?