After her breast cancer diagnosis in 2012 — and the operations, chemotherapy and reconstructive surgeries that followed — pink nipples were two of the last things on Tara Dunsmore’s mind.
Now she thinks of them every day. From size to shape, the details of the pigments that she inks into the skin of other survivors has become her service to women completing reconstruction after mastectomies.
Dunsmore, 44, a registered nurse, is the owner of Pink Ink Tattoo LLC, one of (if not the only) area business dedicated to areola tattooing. As a certified pigment artist, she works with clients who want to add the delicate finishing details of reconstructive surgery through the use of flesh-colored permanent makeup.
After her surgery, Dunsmore and her plastic surgeon “searched for an excellent tattoo artist, and couldn’t find one,” she said.
“I looked at him and said, ‘I’m going to find the best and train with them.’ And I came back and showed him my certificate. It was so natural, it came almost like a divine intervention.”
Dunsmore trained at the Beau Institute of Permanent & Corrective Cosmetics in Mt. Laurel, N.J., where Rose Marie Beauchemin teaches students “the art of permanent makeup” — including lip reconstruction, 3-D nipple shading and other pigment work.
“Typically, I can’t even draw stick figures,” Dunsmore said. “I’m not an artist. It’s freehand. You don’t have stencils and circles and colors.”
A national need
Similar work has drawn the attention of The New York Times, which posted a 5-minute video called “The Nipple Artist” on its site last week. In the clip, Caitlin Keirnan, a breast cancer survivor from Virginia travels to a strip-mall anchored tattoo parlor in Finksburg, Md., where artist Vinnie Myers says he’s doing “1,500 to 2,000 a year.”
“It puts into perspective the volume of people who have breast cancer,” he says in a voice-over as Keirnan flips through pages of his regular skin art, before the camera cuts to another scene — a map with pins representing clusters of women across the country who have journeyed to the shop to have similar work done.
As of Jan. 1, 2012, there were an estimated 2.9 million U.S. women living with a history of breast cancer, according to figures published by the American Cancer Society. The group estimated that nearly 300,000 women, and 2,240 men, were diagnosed with either invasive or in-situ breast cancer in 2013.
Dunsmore expressed empathy for women at the victorious end of a bout with breast cancer who go through reconstructive surgery that is often incomplete.
“With mine, it was ‘pick a shape, a size and a color,” she said, conjuring up the image of an assembly line approach, the tattoos a final stamp on a reconstructed breast. “I thought this was a shame, women should have this as the final completion. They should have a choice,” she said.
With an initial investment of “more than $10,000” for training and equipment, Dunsmore practices in the Davis Plastic Surgery office. Clients find her through word of mouth and online, including breast-cancer survivor community-specific sites such as MyBCTeam.com.
It takes time for people to decide that tattooing the look of a nipple on is right for them, she said. One recent consultation was with a woman who’d had reconstructive surgery 10 years ago.
“I think because you’ve been through the diagnosis itself is life-changing. Then you go through the decision of what type of treatment. Then if you decide to have reconstructive surgery, its not just one, it’s multiple. Then once you’ve gone through all of that, it’s one more thing,” Dunsmore explained.
“It’s like the icing on the cake!” said Julie McQueen, director of community health with the The Susan G. Komen North Carolina Triangle to the Coast affiliate. “A lot of people don’t consider their reconstruction complete until they’ve had the areola and the nipple tattooed.
“Some women only lose one breast, so to have a natural breast and one that’s been reconstructed, it looks really different,” said McQueen, a 13-year breast cancer survivor.
Having just set up shop, Dunsmore’s client list is short: she has three consultations lined up. But she has done scar coverage work for one special client — her mom.
Anita Houde, 66, lives in Raleigh. Twenty-six years after she had nearly five pounds of fibroid tissue removed from both breasts, she allowed her daughter to provide permanent cosmetic cover up.
“I had several surgeries, and I couldn’t show any cleavage because of the scars,” she said, and laughed. “Not that I want to run around and show a lot of cleavage, but I couldn’t even wear certain tops.”
Houde said she was pleased with the work, although she never expected that she nor her daughter would need anything like it.
“We always told our girls that they were fine,” she said. “Cancer doesn’t run in our family.”
She said she was proud to see how Dunsmore, who has two sisters, took her experience with cancer and turned it into an opportunity for service.
McQueen, who first met Dunsmore when the small business owner was in pre-op before her mastectomy, agreed.
“I thought that it was great that she was so motivated to get trained to provide a service that is so meaningful for women who have survived cancer. She is going to be able to provide a natural, more realistic-looking reconstructed breast, which will help give women more confidence and self-esteem,” said McQueen, who has also had surgery to reconstruct both breasts.
McQueen said she hasn’t had the “icing” (as she called it) added, but she’ll consider it now that she knows Dunsmore is doing the work.
“Tara is very inspiring,” she continued. “She has a story to tell, and I think through her work, she’ll be able to tell that story and inspire other women. Women know that Tara’s been where they are, and that’s very comforting.”
Clark: 919-829-4635; Twitter: @meredithclark