Tattoo artist brings hope to breast cancer survivors

NEED TO KNOW
  • Vinnie Myers is a tattoo artist who creates 3D nipples for breast cancer survivors
  • Lillie Shockney, a two-time survivor, talks about what he's meant to her

Lillie Shockney never thought her 19-year-long journey with breast cancer would have brought her to a tattoo shop, with a strange man's hand on her chest. After all, she was just there with a few centimeters of skin in mind, a few centimeters that separated her, and her breasts, from a level of completion even she finds hard to describe. 

She came to Vinnie Myer's tattoo shop in search of the figurative "cherry on top:" a pair of 3-dimensional nipples that would complete her reconstructed breasts. As the Administrative Director of the Johns Hopkins Breast Center, Lillie had heard of Vinnie's work. She had seen the amazing images of nipples that seemed to rise from the flesh of once-cancer-ridden breasts, work that far exceeded the quality of the typical post-reconstruction nipples she was used to. She had heard stories of Vinnie Myers, a former Army medic-turned-tattoo artist with a talent in his hands that could bring a unique sense of closure to thousands of women. 

Once a patient, now helping others

Lillie likes to share her story with the patients she meets at Johns Hopkins. She likes to show them how far medical procedures have come, and that even in the face of a mastectomy, all is not lost. Lillie was diagnosed with breast cancer twice, once in her 30s and again in her 40s. Each time, she underwent a mastectomy. After ten years of living cancer-free with a smooth, flat chest, she finally underwent a full reconstruction. She had her nipples reconstructed too, but it was an iffy process; when nipples are involved, sometimes the results keep, sometimes they don't. The nipples can flatten out, and the basic re-coloring of the areola can fade with time.  

"Everyday, when I was seeing patients who have just been diagnosed, I would ask them, 'Would you like to see what reconstruction can look like?'" she says.  "And I would lift up my shirt, and in my mind, I was thinking, I am only showing someone my abdominal fat that's been relocated. I'm only showing the areola coloring." Her breasts were there, but somehow, for some reason, they didn't always feel like a part of the whole.

So when Lillie came across Vinnie's work, she knew she had to find out for herself what it was like. "When I went to Vinnie, I went out there to meet him and I said, 'I've seen your work on some of our patients. Could you create a 3D image for me, so that my breasts match?'" He said yes.

A life-changing moment

Sitting in the chair at Vinnie's place, Little Vinnie's Tattoos, Lillie said she couldn't help being nervous. After all, a tattoo parlor doesn't necessarily inspire tranquility. Vinnie offered to let her watch him work, but she refused. "I really didn't want to," she said.

But when she saw the results, all of the apprehension, the confusing feelings, just melted away. "When he finished, he turned my chair and faced me looking into a full-length mirror, and I burst into tears. I said, 'Oh my God, I have my breasts again.'" Overcome with emotion, her husband turned to her and said, "I haven't seen them in 19 years."

Why this one procedure, after so many procedures, was so important is difficult to describe. "We don't think we have looked at a woman's breast until we have seen the areola," Lillie explains. "So there is a lot of power and psychological impact that a very small diameter of our body has, and it is very much tied to our femininity for some, to our feeling of wholeness." 

It is that feeling of wholeness, Lillie says, that Vinnie's work can bring to other breast cancer survivors. Vinnie tattoos a few women a day, and some daring survivors have even gotten nipple rings, shamrocks, or pink ribbons inked in place of a regular nipple. It's a small way to reclaim a life threatened by cancer, but it's a way that, for many like Lillie, restores a certain sense of identity. 

After getting her tattoo, Lillie says suddenly, her relationship with her breasts changed. "I was back at work and I had a patient, and I thought it would be helpful to show her what reconstruction looked like, and as I was pulling up my shirt, I stopped. And what went through my brain at that second was, 'Oh my gosh, I'm actually showing someone my real breast!'" 

A real breast -- a breast that was not some foreign entity or battle scar, but a thing of beauty. A part of a whole. 

Helping spread hope, one survivor at a time

Vinnie now takes referrals from the Johns Hopkins Breast Center and is teaching other tattoo artists to do the same nipple coloring he is known for. It is a tough job, because artists must be equipped with not only exceptional artistry, but empathy as well. "This is a totally different psychological process," Lillie says. "This is a very different tattoo than getting 'I love Mom' on your arm." Vinnie get this. For those who find the tattoo parlor a little daunting, he has even outfitted a special breast cancer room, completely decorated in pink. 

It's a nice touch, Lillie says. "It shows me his commitment to really being serious about wanting to help women." Lille says she is proud to be one of those women, and proud to introduce others to the possibilities of the process. To think that in such a small area there can be so much promise, so much healing, it seems unbelievable.

"I wouldn't have had any idea I would have reacted like this, had I not gotten it done," Lillie says. "What oftentimes a patient has to sacrifice as part of her treatment, and survival, Vinnie is able to replicate, so that the feeling of loss is not anywhere near to the same degree."

Nothing will ever replace a real breast. But with people like Vinnie and Lillie on their side, breast cancer survivors can find comfort in knowing they can have the very next best thing. "When you are recovering from breast cancer, we don't want you to be scared," Lillie says. "We want you to walk with confidence. We want you to be whole."

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