The areola tattoo clinic at Eagle Ridge Hospital provides normalcy for post-mastectomy breast cancer survivors. Please note that graphic patient consent photos will follow.
By Brittany Tiplady
One morning in January 2015, Carol Shields, 68, walked into her first tattoo appointment. Curious and blinded of all expectation, she entered the room ready to put a very long and silent journey to an end.
Her tattoo appointment that morning was with Sandi Saunier, a surgical nurse at Eagle Ridge Hospital, who would complete the final aesthetic touches of her double-mastectomy. Shields had won a battle with breast cancer and she fought the fight with unwavering bravery.
Shields was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in May of 2014. To shelter her family from stress and worry during a difficult summer, she decided to keep her diagnosis a secret and began her cancer journey independently. After months of appointments, biopsies, ultrasounds, and the decision to remove both breasts, she went in for her double mastectomy surgery on Halloween evening that year.
“I went in one day for my surgery at eight in the morning and by seven a.m. the next morning I had my make-up on and was discharged. [The staff at] Eagle Ridge Hospital just know how to treat you. I just can’t say how well-organized that hospital is for women’s issues. They are just absolutely incredible,” said Shields.
“This was something new to me and I didn’t really have a lot of time, or any one to talk to who had gone through this. When I found out that I had cancer, I chose not to tell my family. I didn’t want everyone worrying until I had my plan in place.”
She did not let her family know of her condition until the night before her mastectomy.
“I met with Dr.Nguyen just before my surgery,” Shields explains.
“She said ‘You need to tell your family, at least before you have your procedure. Because things happen and they will never forgive you.’ So I did tell everybody the night before I went in and they were very happy to bring me a coffee the next day,” Shields laughed.
One month after a successful mastectomy, Shields, along with the Eagle Ridge Hospital’s plastic surgeon Dr. Dao Nguyen, began to craft the cosmetic stages of her next procedure.
“As she was walking me through how the plastic surgery would go, she explained that they would make a little nipple,” Shields explained.
“I hardly have any scarring because she helped me find the right size. They are just so good at putting things out there for you to kind of contemplate before you make your decision but there is no pressure.”
The following year, after careful consideration and slight bewilderment, Shields walked into the Tri-Cities hospital for yet another appointment and struck up what would be a life changing friendship.
Sandi Saunier spearheads the only areola tattoo clinic of its kind in the province. A veteran surgical nurse of 15 years, she tattoos five to six women once a week and, ultimately, provides the icing on the cake for women closing the door on their cancer journey.
Saunier and the clinic have provided services to over 350 women, free of charge, since opening its doors in 2012. Her work helps reconstruct a mannequin breast into a real breast that emulates life before trauma and before cancer.
Post-mastectomy, plastic surgeons over a series of surgeries create a breast mount. Once all of the breast has healed from radiation, chemotherapy, and from the surgeries, the final step for the surgeon is to create a 3-D nipple with the excess skin. That’s where Saunier takes over.
“If [the surgeons] can’t do the nipple, I can with colouring and shading dark slights, so that I can try to give the illusion of the nipple. I can do that, as well as I also tattoo the areola. So once the surgeons are finished they send me the referral and the patient comes to see me and I allow two hours for each appointment. I draw on them the size of the areola and also we spend a lot of time matching colours. If they have had a single mastectomy I make sure that my pigment matches the other side,” explains Saunier.
Over her years as a surgical nurse, Saunier worked closely with plastic surgeons who did post-mastectomy breast reconstruction. Possibly due to skepticism, or financial restrictions, Saunier along with the hospital’s surgeons realized that many patients weren’t completing the entire post-operation process.
Surgeons urged Saunier to start the areola tattoo clinic where women could have their final stages of reconstruction done for free in a surgical setting
So that’s exactly what Saunier did. After training with a surgical nurse from Kentucky and shadowing cosmetic and tattoo artists around the lower mainland, she began tattooing breast cancer survivors once a week, for as long as the funding would allow.
“It’s just amazing that Sandi does this, and she does it in a way that makes you feel good about yourself. She really makes sure that you are happy with the colouring, and she lets it be known that she is there for you. She has an amazing way about her. There is no gratification for herself at all. She’s an angel,” said Shields.
The costs for such a procedure is about $600 per patient, and the clinic is not funded by B.C. Medical. Saunier’s work is done entirely by donation.
“The supply and demand got to be so much that I ran out of money by the Fall of every year and then I couldn’t do patients again until the Spring,” said Saunier.
The donation allows 250 women receive areola tattoos at the hospital free of charge.
“I love the ability to give my time to each patient. Just by asking some open ended questions I find that the ladies are very willing to open up and I become part of a very intimate, private part of their life,” she said.
“These ladies have all gone through so much trauma and it helps to provide some conclusion. They are always hugging and crying before they leave. It’s very emotional for them to know, and for me to know, that I can really help these ladies to feel better about their bodies. I give them my personal phone number so that they can contact me with any questions that they may have.”
Carol Shields is one of the many women that is thankful for having entered Saunier’s tattoo clinic.
“You’ve gone through this scary time, you’ve had your implants, you have your nipple, and all this work on you, and you can actually look in a mirror after all of that and look like a normal woman. You have no idea the feeling that it gives you. This is over. This is complete now.”
You can donate to the Eagle Ridge Hospital Foundation and chose your donation designation online.
Brittany Tiplady is a part-time poet, and a full-time goat cheese enthusiast. She loves the indoors, fast wifi, collecting maps, and a generous glass of red wine.