Breast cancer survivors filled with confidence thanks to tattoos 

click to enlarge Sasha Merritt
  • Beth LaBerge/Special to The S.F. Examiner
  • Sisters Susan Duarte, center, and Cindy Dalton, right, talk with Sasha Merritt, far left, about the nipple tattoos she gave them after their mastectomies.
The last straw for Susan Duarte was when her nipple fell off.

Her double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery now 11 years behind her, Duarte suffered a fate common for breast cancer survivors: one of her surgically reconstructed nipples didn’t take, and it simply dropped off.

Coming after surgery and cancer treatments, the setback was an almost-comical final ignominy, and one she didn’t have the energy to fight. So she resigned herself to her new reality: one nipple, and a sexless life.

“I didn’t take my clothes off for 12 years,” the brazen, vivacious San Jose native said recently.

Her body wasn’t whole. But at least she was alive.

Several years later, Duarte’s sister, Cindy Dalton, was also diagnosed with cancer. She, too, went through a double mastectomy — but their lives have since changed dramatically.

Just ask them about their breasts — which look normal and whole, with surgery scars and all.

Both women opted for a surgery-free solution to complete their breast reconstructions: getting lifelike nipples applied via tattoos from San Francisco-based artist Sasha Merritt, who is one of a few artists in the United States providing an increasingly popular service for cancer survivors.

What Merritt does sounds remarkably simple. She matches a woman’s skin pigmentation with a custom-mixed ink, and uses light and shadow to draw nipples that look, even a few feet away, just like the real thing.

In today’s tattoo-crazed world, when even librarians sport ink once seen only on sailors, San Francisco is full of tattoo artists. But not every parlor provides the “trompe-l’oeil” of a three-dimensional tattoo.

The practice is a natural fit for Merritt, 44, an “art school dropout” with a fine arts background in figurative painting. Merritt started tattooing when she was a struggling artist paying the bills by working at the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and she discovered a niche tattooing lifelike plants and animals.

But after a few years, she found herself seeing more and more female clients who wanted to do something with their mastectomy scars.

These were women who were sick of surgery, she said, and wanted something else to “finish” their bodies’ recovery from cancer. One client, she recalled, wanted to incorporate her scar into the spine of a tattooed lizard — but she’d heard of other women opting for tattooed nipples. For Merritt, the nipple tattoos didn’t look good enough and she knew she could do better.

From now-retired San Francisco tattoo artist Laura Vida, Merritt had learned three-dimensional body art, with which she combined the two into the formula she uses today for the surgery-free solution to complete a reconstructed breast.

The procedure itself — from $500 to $700 for a client without insurance — is quick and fairly simple, she notes. After a consultation, usually by telephone, clients come in for an initial visit that’s no longer than two hours. To make sure the color looks right, there’s a second sitting about a week later, once the skin heals from the first tattoo – and that’s it.

The demand for this service is burgeoning. Merritt isn’t sure how many women she’s tattooed nipples for — she sees as many as four clients a day on a busy day — but she gets calls and emails from potential clients from all over the country.

She’s shopped her service to various hospitals in the Bay Area and in Boston, and recently won approval for a grant where any woman getting reconstructive surgery at San Francisco General Hospital can get a three-dimensional tattoo — for free.

That made getting the body art a no-brainer, said Dalton and Duarte.

“I feel very normal,” said Dalton who along with her sister proudly endorses the benefits of their choice to anyone who asks.

“Reconstructive surgery is hard on people mentally,” she said. “If my nipples dried up and fell off, I wouldn’t be strong enough for that.”

“Tattooing is the way to do it. Absolutely.”

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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