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Tattoos offer a new beginning for breast cancer survivors

Published:Monday | October 31, 2016 | 10:00 AM
Dennis Turner hugs his wife and breast cancer survivor Debbie Turner, of Ringwood, in East Rutherford, N.J. Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. Turner sports an airbrushed tattoo from the "Celebration Life and Liberty" event hosted by the John Theurer Cancer Center at HackensackUMC for cancer patients, their families and survivors at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. Turner celebrated being five years cancer-free last week.
In this Sept. 14, 2016 photo, breast cancer survivor Judy Lawley shows her breast cancer ribbon tattoo on the Lubbock Christian University campus where she is attending classes in Lubbock, Texas.
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Not every tattoo client at Iron Age Studios on the Delmar Loop wants trendy art, a Bible verse or a Japanese symbol. A growing number of clients are breast cancer survivors dealing with mastectomies.

Tattoo artist Kerry Soraci typically works with three or four breast cancer survivors every month, the St Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

The American Cancer Society says more than one-third of women with early-stage breast cancer opt for a mastectomy, and the number of women who choose to have a healthy breast removed as a preventive measure has tripled in the past decade.

Theresa Schwartz, a breast surgeon at Saint Louis University, said that after a patient heals, the patient can remain flat-chested or undergo breast reconstruction. If the nipple and areola have been removed, the woman can decide whether she wants to get a tattoo to mimic the look, or she may seek something artistic to create a new appearance.

"It's the one thing they have control over after 18 months of treatment," Schwartz said, noting that the post-op tattoo can help relieve a patient's anxiety.

Soraci, 49, can blend an infinite combination of pinks and browns to complement skin tone, and use shading and highlights for a three-dimensional illusion.

"Plastic surgeons are not graphic artists," Schwartz said. "And they can't do anything different," like a cascade of ivy or a blooming sunflower. "The tattoos are a means of self-expression. It's realising you have a new beginning once you're done with treatment."

Schwartz found out about Soraci a couple of years ago and sends her clients there. Soraci, who has a degree in fine arts from Washington University, finds fulfillment helping women figure out how they want to look and feel in their new bodies.

"Post-mastectomy tattoos encompass the true nature of tattooing," Soraci said. "They mark a real rite of passage, a celebration to an end of a very traumatic journey."

The nipple tattoos for Melissa McHale, 34, of St Peters, mark her sixth and seventh tattoos. After a stage 4 cancer diagnosis she endured two years of chemo, surgery and radiation.

"After every step that I've been through, this is the end of my journey," McHale said. "Everything has worked up to this: It's the light at the end of the tunnel.

"I think I'm just going to feel complete."