Breast Cancer Survivors Regain a Sense of Normalcy at Eagle Ridge Hospital

Eagle Ridge Hospital Mastectomy Tattoos

Eagle Ridge Hospital here in the Tri-Cities does a lot of important work. One of the ways they help patients is by caring for women throughout their lengthy struggle to fight breast cancer. This process may involve general and plastic surgeons for minimizing the effect of tumor removal and to help prepare for reconstructive breast surgery. Since 2012 Eagle Ridge Hospital has been taking the last step: 3-dimensional areola tattoos.

I recently connected with Sandi Saunier, a surgical nurse and medical tattoo artist. She spends one day each week doing the tattoos, after being encouraged to learn this skill. She studied with a nurse in Kentucky, took a course at an esthetician’s office and spent time with a tattoo artist in Abbotsford to perfect her technique. She explained why she took on the project, saying, “Up until this time if women had a full mastectomy due to breast cancer, either the surgeons would do the tattoo themselves, or they would go to an esthetician or tattoo parlour or not have it done.”

The areola tattoos are not covered by MSP, so Eagle Ridge Hospital provides the service through the generous support of Allergan Canada and Soroptimist International of the TriCities. This makes a significant difference to the breast cancer survivors, as Saunier estimates that the service would cost approximately $700-$1000 if they visited a private esthetician. There’s more to it, though, as she explains, “It’s not just the cost involved. Most ladies feel more comfortable seeing a nurse.”

So what is a 3-dimensional tattoo? Saunier explains, “When I start to tattoo the nipple and the areola I do not use just one solid colour. I try to make it look as realistic as possible.” If a patient has had a single mastectomy, this means matching the shape and colour of the other breast accurately. In fact, she says that these tattoos take longer, because of the care involved.

So what is involved for the patients? Saunier shares, “I allow two hours per patient. Part of that time isn’t just the tattooing. I make sure I put a topical cream on the patient so that they’re not uncomfortable. I can also use some local freezing. They’re wide awake, they’re feeling free, and I give them a chance to vent about their experience.”

That venting is possibly the most important part of the procedure, as Saunier explains, “It’s really a chance to talk about what has happened to them over – generally it’s a good few years – since diagnosis. This is their last procedure, cancer is put behind them. It’s closure. It’s the icing on the cake. It takes women from a mannequin looking breast to a normal looking breast. I’m realizing the psychological component of what I do is extremely important. It’s very therapeutic for them.”

I had to ask her one last question – does she do any other kind of tattoo? She says, “I honestly have never ventured outside of that box. I will start out with something that looks like a beautiful butterfly and it will end up looking like a third nipple somewhere.” On a more serious note, she explains, “The money has been donated to me for areola tattooing and I am not going to waste those funds.”

Eagle Ridge Hospital is the only hospital in the Lower Mainland to offer this service free to breast cancer survivors and, as such, it is visited by patients throughout the Lower Mainland. The clinic is managed by Saunier in conjunction with plastic surgeon, Dr. Dao Nguyen.

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