Hospital's In-House 3D Nipple Tattoo for Breast Cancer Survivors

After Pamela Harvey’s original breast reconstruction in Louisiana left an abnormality, Dr. Steven Gordon of Houston's Woodlands Hospital will be delivering the first 3D nipple tattoo.
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While nipple tattooing and tattoos of three-dimensional nipples aren't new—especially in the breast cancer survivor community—in-house hospital tattooing 3D nipples is. Especially in Houston, where The Woodland's Hospital is delivering its first.

Pamela Harvey had a second breast reconstruction, but didn’t feel like herself, which is why she has been seeking out this option. But she didn't want to go to a tattoo parlor.

It has been six years since she has chosen to treat her ductal carcinoma with a unilateral mastectomy. After her original reconstruction in Louisiana left a contouring abnormality, Dr. Steven Gordon of Houston Methodist The Woodlands’ Institute for Reconstructive Surgery corrected Harvey’s breast asymmetry in January.

Now, Dr. Gordon will be helping her further.

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Harvey will be the first patient to receive a 3D tattoo nipple and areola reconstruction at Houston Methodist The Woodlands’ Institute. Methodist will be delivering the first nipple and areola reconstruction with ink at a major Houston hospital system.

“To look at myself without having that done... I’m not complete,” Harvey said.

The 3D tattoo program is the first tattoo service offered in-house at any major hospital system in the greater Houston area.

Before the Institute’s Dr. Gordon and Dr. Benjamin Albright conceived the program in 2017, breast cancer survivors in Houston who underwent a mastectomy and subsequent breast reconstruction were referred to private tattoo artists by their plastic surgeon.

Now with the in-house 3D nipple and areola tattoo procedure, Gordon and Albright’s patients can complete their full breast reconstruction process with their own surgeon.

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“It makes a difference that it’s offered here because they’ve been with me through this journey,” Harvey said. “I’ve put my trust in Dr. Gordon.”

While several nipple reconstruction options are available for patients in similar situation to Harvey’s, more and more women are wanting to add art to their mastectomy scars through tattoos, to not only help mark their triumph through their journey, but to help them carry on post-survival.

Patients like Harvey, who chose to undergo a mastectomy rather than a major lumpectomy and radiation to treat her breast cancer.

“As a woman, you have breasts and you have nipples,” Harvey said. “This wasn’t even available for me six years ago.”

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Dr. Gordon said, “Nipple and areola reconstruction is usually considered the last step in a breast reconstruction. A patient may be eligible for a nipple-preserving mastectomy, but Harvey’s cancer was too close to the areola.”

Dr. Gordon also noted that another option is a skin graft to create the appearance of a nipple “But that method loses projection sooner rather than later,” he said.

Often though, patients will choose a prosthetic nipple. This prosthetic nipple is a piece of silicone or cartilage, but for Harvey, she said it wouldn’t be a great option, because “it would always be perky.”

Rather than rebuild the breast with a silicone implant, Gordon did an autologous reconstruction on Harvey. using fat from her abdomen, rather than repeat her previous implant-based surgery and risk rejection from the body. He also wanted to avoid subsequent pain and infection from a possible rejection from the body.

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This autologous reconstruction is “the final step in restoring the breast to its original state,” Gordon said.

While this procedure is the final step for Dr. Gordon, for Harvey, it is the close of an incredibly painful and difficult, six-year-old story.

Harvey said the decision to “essentially amputate one of my breasts was not an easy one,” she said. “With the breast comes inherent femininity, and with the removal of it come the doubts and a feeling of incompleteness.”

For Harvey, this is the final step in “looking in the mirror and feeling more normal.”

These tattoos for breast reconstruction helps restore the femininity, completeness, and aesthetic to a survivor’s breast.

Harvey’s procedure will be done by Dr. Gordon and his assistant, Paola Cordero, as she has a background in skin care and permanent makeup.

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The Methodist’s Institute for Reconstructive Surgery procedure will take about three hours. Most of that time will be spent measuring, placing, and color matching for Harvey.

Like on any other tattoo, the depth and shading will create the appearance of a 3D nipple. This brings back a feeling of being whole for women who don’t want an foreign implant. The customizable and completely personalized three-dimensional nipple tattoo can deliver this “wholeness” for each woman who receives it.

The procedure has already gained a lot of interest from both the Institute’s existing patients going through breast reconstruction, as well as women in similar treatment at hospitals around the country.

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For now, Gordon said, the Institute is starting small, so the Institute can “address each patient on a case-by-case basis” and “ensure they’re both physically and emotionally ready for it.”

While Houston Methodist The Woodlands’ Institute is hoping to spread hope to a larger audience soon, Harvey’s story, and her championing through alongside this incredible advancement, is what will push the possibility for better consolation for breast cancer survivors everywhere.