Breast cancer survivors heal with a little help from permanent makeup artists
Content Warning: This article contains photographs of 3D nipple and areola tattoo reconstruction.
Kristen Peck is a Virginia-board-certified permanent makeup technician at Derma-hue in Carytown. Her storefront isn’t flashy. There aren’t any aspirational photos or signs promising to transform your appearance for the coming fall, winter, spring or summer.
And that’s the way she likes it.
Peck does microbladed eyebrows, which is a method of tattooing that creates a 3D effect with individual hair strokes. Alongside eyebrows, permanent lip and eyeliner, she also restores areolas for people who’ve had their breasts removed.
It’s emotional and meaningful work. One of Peck’s clients just reached the 5-year-cancer-free mark, an important milestone as the chances of the cancer returning drop significantly.
“She said it was the first time she had looked in the mirror naked in over four and a half years. She would take off her shirt, and she would go to her makeup mirror and put her makeup on, but she would not look in her bathroom mirror,” Peck says.
Tattooing is the latest career for Peck, who permanently retired from the Virginia Beach Police force after shattering her hand at work. She then spent 12 years in the medical industry focused on wound care. Somewhere along that journey, she also started a business selling handmade decorative tiles. But today, she says, she’s right where she wants to be.
“You know, the skin is my thing. I love it,” she says.
Peck’s art background helps elevate her current work creating photo-realistic images of nipples on breasts that are often completely bare. It actually looks as if the nipples are protruding. She describes using light, depth and color theory while in the same breath discussing anatomy and dermal layers. She uses a special tattoo gun that’s more quiet and gentler on skin.
“Although there are a couple of tattoo artists out there that are just phenomenal, they’re tattoo artists,” she says. “I’m not going to put the shape of a butterfly on your areola. I am a clinical, technical, medical artist.”
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 137,808 breast reconstructive procedures were performed in the U.S. in 2020. The American Cancer Society estimates about 281,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in 2021 and about 43,600 women will die from the disease.
Since 1998, federal law has required insurance to cover breast reconstruction following a mastectomy, including areola/nipple reconstruction, prosthetics and tattooing. For tattoos, patients have to provide their insurance provider with a receipt and a doctor’s prescription, including the diagnosis & proper codes to support the medical necessity. Peck is registered as a healthcare provider by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. She charges $450.00 for one breast and $650 for two, which, according to the non-profit www.breastcancer.org, is the standard out-of-pocket range.
Peck is on a mission to educate people about the law, the general public as well as doctors. Peck says she spoke to a local surgical oncologist who was surprised to hear the service was covered.
“I turned to him and I said, ‘You’re one of the best in town. If you don’t know this, we got a lot of work to do,’” Peck says.
But she’s also working to raise money to help survivors who don’t have insurance and to train more people to do the work.
“We’re trying to get into that gap and offer a service that women need desperately. And I don't want women to be ashamed to talk about it,” she says. “I don’t want them to be ashamed to say ‘I haven’t had it done.’”
Peck works with a medical director, Jessica VanTuyle. VanTuyle is an obstetrician-gynecologist and a breast cancer survivor. She initially came to Derma-Hue for eyebrows. She later left with a fresh set of nipples and a strong desire to help Peck realize her dream of starting a non-profit.
“When she does her work, the scars are in the background now and they’re not all you see,” VanTuyle says.
VanTuyle says the medical industry often overlooks the psychological toll that life-saving mastectomies have on patients. They’ve survived the trauma, but their body is drastically transformed. Breast and areola restoration are an important finishing touch for many.
“You go through the treatment process. And then they’re like ‘Okay, bye, got to go,’ and your identity is shattered,” VanTuyle says. “Your life has totally changed. But it’s just not part of the curative process or treatment process, medically. And it’s just not a priority.”
But Peck wants to make nipple and areola restoration a priority for those who desire it. She says she eventually wants to open a facility dedicated to areola restoration where she teaches others to perform the service.
She says, “I would love for someone that can see the vision that would want to step in and say you know what, we can do this together.”