It's not an easy journey for cancer survivors, but this artist is changing that.
As the granddaughter of a woman who had breast cancer, I can say without a doubt that it's one of the scariest things in the world. Granted, I wasn't the one experiencing it, but loving someone who's facing such a thing is never easy.
When it became clear that the treatment wasn't going to rid my Grammy's body of the cancer, she had a mastectomy. Her left breast was removed, and being well into her 70's at the time, she chose not to opt for a breast implant. Instead, she makes do with a bra that has a mock breast in the cup.
Breast cancer runs in my family. It doesn't run rampantly, and we're lucky enough not to have the BRCA gene, but it's there in a couple of my Grammy's siblings (she has seven of them), and in my aunt, too.
Because of this, combined with my general "the glass is half empty" attitude, I've already decided what I would do if I were to get breast cancer: I would have a breast removed. But I would tattoo something in its place (although what that tattoo would be is still up in the air).
Women getting tattoos in the spot where they had a breast removed is nothing new. While I may opt for something a bit more dramatic (skull and bones, perhaps?), many women are choosing to get nipples tattooed on their breasts.
In these cases, women are turning to Baltimore-based tattoo artist, Vinnie Myers, who, in the last 15 years, has tattooed roughly 7,000 nipples on women (and men) who have had to get to reconstructive surgery after losing a breast to cancer.
Tucked away in a strip mall, of all places, Myers is the go-to for women looking to reclaim a part of themselves that's been stolen from them by cancer. As Myers explained to Elle earlier this year, it's an extremely emotional experience for the women, and tattooing a nipple is hardly like tattooing anything else.
"You can't approach nipple tattoos like your everyday 'Mom' heart or eagle tattoo. There are so many factors and problems that might occur: what surgeries they've had, or what approach the breast surgeon took, or how much subcutaneous tissue they took.
There are jobs where, if you were tattooing at normal depth, you'd go completely through the skin into what's below — muscle or a dermal matrix, or an implant.
Are you tattooing on scar tissue? Is it raised or flat or something totally messed up? Everyone is completely different, and that's what makes this so much more difficult than regular tattooing," Myers says.
All photos: Vinnie Myers
But despite making a name for himself in tattooing nipples on women, Myers considered throwing in the towel and going back to tattooing everything else but nipples.
What changed his mind? The very day he made that decision, his sister called him to tell him that she had breast cancer. It was in that moment he realized what he was meant to do.
Shortly after that, he never did another kind of tattoo again and has since become the most sought-after nipple tattooist out there, even being honored by Dr. Jill Biden at a Breast Cancer Awareness Month gala at the Vice President's home.
In the past 15 years, not only has Myers evolved and grown as a tattoo artist, but as a person, too. As Myers explains, he used to think of the nipple as a sexual thing, but no longer sees it that way.
"Now I see [the nipple] as this incredibly important piece to the human puzzle. I wasn't prepared for how something so small can make people feel whole again," he says. What Myers gives to women is an extraordinary gift.
If you've undergone a mastectomy and are looking to fill in that missing piece, Vinnie Myers and his team are your men. He may not be able to wipe the memory of cancer from your brain, but he can at least make the transition after a mastectomy a bit easier.