Mastectomy scar tattoos get to the heart of the matter
By Beth Schwartz
“Yep, I made it and here’s my gold medal” is not the response you expect to hear from a breast cancer patient who has suffered through six months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and breast reconstruction. But that was Rose Belleque’s reaction to getting a custom tattoo of two lotus flowers that artfully camouflage the fact she no longer has areolas while also hiding scars that run across her chest left behind as a permanent reminder of a mastectomy.
“Following surgery you get changed, you try not to look at yourself post-surgically or at your incision,” explains Belleque, 52, who was diagnosed with invasive ductal HER2/neu breast cancer in February 2016. “Afterwards I didn’t want to look at myself, but I just feel better every day. I have a little bit of tattoo that shows if I wear a tank top and even just seeing that when I am completely dressed in the morning I think -- it really is pretty awesome.”
This is exactly the feeling Kim Maddi, founder of Ink Ribbon Foundation, was hoping to give to breast cancer survivors when she started Ink Ribbon in 2017. “I just wanted a way to help women and help them feel beautiful again,” says Maddi, 41. “It was just an idea and my little tiny idea has now grown into this thing. I have already helped one wonderful lady and I am getting ready to help another wonderful lady. It’s a dream come true, to be honest with you.”
Her tiny idea blossomed from the most untenable of circumstances. Maddi, too, is a breast cancer survivor. Diagnosed with stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma in her right breast in 2012, Maddi didn’t initially realize when she opted for a double mastectomy they would take everything including her nipples. “They said after you get your implants, you can have nipple reconstruction followed by tattooing of the nipple to make it look more natural. But I thought about it and I didn’t care too much about having fake nipples,” she relays with a small laugh, “it didn’t make much sense to me.”
Then Maddi discovered an artist in Chicago who did beautiful artwork covering mastectomy scars and decided that was a more preferable way for her to go. “I had eight-inch-long scars on each of my breasts and I just didn’t want to see the scars anymore. I pretty much knew if I was going to do something artistic, I was going to have to pay for it on my own. Then I discovered the 3D nipple tattooing or areola restorative tattooing would not be covered by insurance either,” she explains.
Either way, tattooing is not an inexpensive proposition. Maddi’s research showed scar coverup tattooing would range from $1,200 to $2,000, which meant it was going to be a while before she was able to afford to conceal the ever-present reminders of her breast cancer.
But fate intervened, and Maddi connected with a local tattoo artist named Tank who had experience doing mastectomy scar tattoos and wanted to help her. “I was originally planning on doing it for my five-year cancerversary, I had just passed my four-year cancerversary. I was so excited to get it done and he was giving me such a great deal because in his words, ‘you have already been through enough, I’m not going to make money off of your ordeal.’ He charged me the minimal of what it would cost for the ink. He freehanded my design and I am thrilled with the results.”
For her design Maddi wanted cherry blossoms. “I wanted it to have branches, but I also wanted it to appear like it had movement or like wind was going through it. He put a piece of saran wrap over my breast and started drawing. A couple of weeks later he had a rendering that he taped on me and it was perfect,” says Maddi, who then spent approximately seven hours over two days getting her chest re-blossomed.
“It was an overwhelming and emotional experience. It was like a weight had been taken off my shoulders, it was kind of like the closing of a chapter. I just had such a hard time looking at myself in the mirror and seeing those scars every day. It was just such a gruesome reminder of what I had dealt with and I was so looking forward to seeing something beautiful there now,” shares Maddi.
It was this experience that she was determined to give to others. “Once I discovered I had cancer after the initial shock of it all, I just knew I had to do something. I can’t be a survivor and go about my day and not think about this every day,” explains Maddi. “For me it just grew into a need to help people the way that I have been helped -- it’s just a dream come true.”
During her tattoo research, Maddi had been following a lot of artists and discovered a few on the East Coast who were doing scar coverups to help survivors as charity. “There’s some amazing artwork out there and it’s so empowering to make a woman feel beautiful again after looking at hideous scars for so long. It’s an amazing experience for everybody,” she explains of being inspired by the idea.
“A lot of women want them, but they can’t afford them because it’s really very costly. It was a such a great experience for me I just wanted a way to help them, truly help them without throwing my money into some pink ribbon foundation that really wasn’t doing anybody any good,” explains Maddi, who notes that no cancer organizations reached out to her post-surgery. “I wanted a way to help women, especially in Las Vegas, to feel beautiful again. We are a big town of 2.5 million people and there has to be some breast cancer survivors out there who want to get this service done.”
Maddi collaborated with Tank on concepting the idea of Ink Ribbon which would become a reality in 2017. In addition to Tank’s tattoo artistry, she also brought on a photographer and makeup artist, so the charity could offer “before and after” shots as part of the coverup package. Her first goal was to become “a legit 5013c because I definitely wanted this to be a non-profit organization. We didn’t want to profit, we just wanted to help people.”
Next she set a goal of helping one person a year with the hope of growing Ink Ribbon from there. She achieved her second goal quickly with a call out of the blue from cannabis dispensary The+Source who wanted to get in the pink. “One of our employees knew her (Maddi) and when we were trying to find something to do with breast cancer they suggested I contact her,” recalls Courtney Barker, purchasing manager at The+Source. “I just wanted to do something a little more impactful for someone in the community, rather than donating something to a foundation where someone like her (Belleque) might never see anything from it.”
“Of course, I jumped at that when they wanted to donate funds especially getting it from a dispensary which we know, of course, the benefits of cannabis for breast cancer patients and survivors and for other types of ailments. I’m definitely on board with that,” says Maddi, who saw the partnership as “a match made in heaven.”
Barker came up with a promotion The+Source conducted last October during Breast Cancer Awareness month that was tied to a battery donation from cannabis company Moxie. The dispensary sold Moxie’s pink batteries for $10 a piece with the total proceeds of $1,000 then donated to Ink Ribbon resulting in Belleque receiving her coverup tattoo in December 2017.
The+Source is doing the same promotion this October with Moxie once again donating batteries. “Ideally we would like to surpass what we did last year. Then we can help more than just one person. Helping breast cancer survivors makes me feel fantastic but we didn’t do it to make us feel good,” says Barker. “It always feels good when you are improving someone’s quality of life and how they perceive themselves and that’s always our goal to give someone their confidence back.”
Ink Ribbon’s second tattoo recipient received her scar coverup last month and Maddi is thrilled with the prospect of giving a third breast cancer survivor her dream of a tattoo later this year following The+Source’s donation resulting from its promotion this month.
“I know what that woman feels like when all is said and done at the end of the day,” says Maddi. “When you are getting out of the shower and looking at yourself in the mirror you are smiling from ear to ear. You’re a different person after going through cancer everything is cool at that point, just waking up every day is cool.”