Woman’s journey to beat breast cancer ends with nipple tattoos
By Victoria Hansen
MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (WCIV) — It’s been five years since Sharon Dempsey took the shower that changed her life. She bent down to pick up a razor and immediately felt it, a lump beneath her breasts.
“My tumor was right under where they pull it up so it never made it on to the mammogram screen,” said Dempsey.
She quickly called her doctor.
“I said, ‘Dr. Scott, I felt something I’ve never felt it before. It doesn’t move.’ I went in to see him on Monday and by Friday I was already lined up for surgery,” Dempsey said.
The moment is still vivid as she makes what she hopes is her last doctor visit.
“I’ve always before I’ve had any of my procedures, I do research about it and there’s not a lot of research out there on how they do the tattooing,” she said.
At 55, Sharon is about to get her first tattoo — make that two tattoos.
“I wasn’t nervous until my son told me it was going to hurt, and then yes I was nervous,” she said.
Dempsey lives in Irmo, but has come to The Center for Natural Breast Reconstruction in Mount Pleasant to have most of her work done. Here, Dr. James Craigie took fat from her belly to build new breasts
“Tummy tuck and like the ladies at work say, I’ve got 18 year old boobs,” said Dempsey.
But that’s not all. Dr. Craigie even managed to create natural looking nipples from Sharon’s own skin.
“Well, we take the skin that is there and we turn the skin on itself,” said Dr. Craigie. “And we fold it up and we actually make the nipple from that skin.”
The nub of skin certainly looks like a nipple, only it lacks texture and color. There is no areola, just pale skin.
That is where medically trained tattoo artist Kimberly Kay comes in. She greets Dempsey for this final appointment, walking her through every detail.
“I will mark you in the area that will be the size of the tattoo, and then we’ll do color matching against your chest,” she said.
Together, Dempsey and Kay decide the size and shape of her new nipples. They use stick ons to trace.
The next decision is color.
“She said normally your areola matches your lips and that is why she wanted me to remove my lipstick so that she could match it,” said Dempsey.
Like an artist, Kay pops open small pots of color — pink, beige and brown in so many shades.
“She basically takes a little pot and she just starts mixing the color and then she puts splotches on your skin,” said Dempsey.
Once the perfect combination is created, Kay cranks up the tattoo needle, but not before giving Sharon a little numbing medication. Dempsey does have some sensation still in her chest.
“She does a basket weave when she does the tattooing. She goes this way and then she goes this way,” said Dempsey.
“There are different techniques,” said Kay. “It’s not exactly drawing. We have to actually put it into scar tissue.”
Kay pushes the tattoo needle hard, but Dempsey doesn’t flinch. She’s been through so much more.
“I’m just thankful that I’m here,” she said.
Kimberly finishes with some contrasting colors for a more realistic look.
“I’m going to spot do just brown and actually just do a brown ring around the base of the nipple to create the shadow effect,” Kay said.
She hands Dempsey a mirror and the reaction is immediate: “I look normal again, I mean it looks normal to me again.”
Dempsey will no longer have to be reminded daily of what cancer has cost. Her new tattoos cover the physical scars that will eventually heal. Mentally, she’s ready to move on.
“Well my tattoos are symbolic. My tattoos symbolize that’s the end,” said Dempsey.
“I made it. It’s over, yeah. I did it.”