Breast cancer survivor gets confidence back after realistic nipple tattoo: 'I felt like part of me was missing'
A woman, who endured more than 100 cycles of breast cancer treatment, has revealed how her confidence has been "restored" after deciding to have an areola tattoo.
Helen Laws, 50, from Chandler’s Ford, Hampshire first discovered a lump on her breast in 2011, which was diagnosed as cancer two months later, following a second opinion.
While the secondary school science technician always put her treatment first, she decided to have her nipple tattooed once hospital appointments became part of her regular routine.
“I did (the tattoo) for me," she explains. "I really felt like part of me was missing before."
In October 2022, a permanent make-up artist at Tracie Giles London, who'd previously tattooed Laws' eyebrows after she lost them during chemotherapy, announced a competition to have 3D areola tattooing.
Laws entered the competition and was elated to learn she had won.
“I’ve never won anything in my life, and I was just amazed to get the call,” she recalls.
“They colour-matched my nipple to the normal one, and it looks so realistic."
“It’s been hugely positive and restored my confidence," she continues.
“I now feel more symmetrical, balanced and comfortable in my skin. I’m just really thrilled."
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Laws was diagnosed with grade three left-sided breast cancer in August 2011 after being referred to a specialist.
“I was in shock because there’s no one with breast cancer in my family,” she says.
On November 3 2011, the mum-of-one began treatment which, she now knows, is likely to last for the rest of her life.
She had a wide local excision and 19 of her lymph nodes under her arm removed, as well as 20 sessions of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
“I lost my hair but I think worse than that, you lose your eyebrows and eyelashes and look a bit alien-like, which isn’t very pleasant,” she says of the side effects.
Then, on March 3, 2012, Laws' temperature suddenly spiked to 41C while she was at home.
She was rushed into A&E and was quickly transferred into critical care, where it was revealed she had contracted sepsis and pneumonia.
“That was probably the lowest point because my husband was told I would probably not make it through the night," she explains.
“I still have flashbacks, and it was very traumatic.”
After a week in hospital, Laws made a recovery to continue her radiotherapy but she was devastated to learn, in 2014, that the cancer had returned to her left breast. As a result, she underwent a skin-sparing mastectomy and immediate breast reconstruction.
The NHS describes a skin-sparing mastectomy as being where “all of the breast tissue is removed, including the nipple, but most of the skin covering the breast is left”.
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Laws was advised against a double mastectomy as she was told her cancer was likely to return despite there being no breast tissue in the area.
“I thought if they removed both breasts, it would remove the risk," she explains. "But that was not the case for me.
“I had to deal with that news, but at the end of the day, you have to listen to the medical professionals.”
In early 2015, Laws had nipple reconstruction using a skin graft from her back, but it left scarring to her reconstructed areola, with no colour on the nipple and no feeling in her breast.
“I’d always thought I might have that tattooed at some point," she explains.
“But at the end of the day, the treatment took priority, and I just kept putting it on hold.”
Later that year, Laws' cancer returned in the lower part of her reconstructed left breast, meaning she had to have yet another six cycles of chemotherapy.
In 2016, she had another recurrence, so she had more surgery to remove the affected tissue and 90 cycles of targeted cancer treatment.
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Despite her ongoing treatment, she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer in her right lung in 2020.
“I had about an orange-sized section of my lung removed," she says.
“It was fairly unpleasant and uncomfortable because the lung is accessed through your ribs in the VATS (Video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery) surgery.”
She returned to work in 2021 and is now on a long-term treatment plan targeting her cancer, and receives treatment once every four weeks.
Laws' treatment has become part of her daily routine: “On a day-to-day basis, I think you just have to get on with it," she says.
“Treatment is very much built into my lifestyle and life carries on as normal.”
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Laws says her illnesses have made her “appreciate the fragility of life”, and she has accepted the cancer will never be in full remission.
“I think your whole outlook on life changes, and you appreciate the fragility of life, and you really learn to focus on what’s important,” she says.
The mum hopes that by sharing her story she will raise awareness about areola tattooing to help other breast cancer patients regain their confidence after treatment.
“The fact that I did not properly explore this until eight years post-mastectomy highlights the need for increased awareness of these types of aesthetic treatments for people who are undergoing or have undergone breast surgery or reconstructions,” she adds.
For support, visit Cancerresearchuk.org.
Additional reporting PA.