Laura Hottman never planned on getting tattoos. But the 54-year-old also never planned on getting breast cancer.
When the cancer was gone and her body was put back together — after the chemotherapy and the double mastectomy and the surgeries that reconstructed her breasts — Hottman saw scars.
Scars from the incisions needed to remove the cancerous tissue from her right breast. Scars to remove the healthy tissue from her left breast. Scars from the failed nipple reconstruction procedure.
“You kind of feel like you have a sign hanging on you, ‘Under construction,’ ” Hottman said.
Hottman had planned to get nipple reconstruction — a procedure that leaves the patient with a small bump that looks like a nipple, and is followed by tattooing to re-create the areola.
But the procedure didn’t work. The constructed nipples spread flat, leaving Hottman with wide shiny patches of scarred skin. Rather than try again, Hottman shifted course. Instead of areolas, she would get decorative tattoos on her breasts to disguise the scars.
“If you’re going to look at it every day, why not make it pretty?” Hottman said.
At 54 years old, and 2½ years post-cancer diagnosis, Hottman took the first step toward making her breasts beautiful again.
In the back of Giffin’s dimly lit studio, Hottman lies topless in a reclined chair. A bright overhead light serves as a spotlight, illuminating Hottman’s left breast.
Giffin takes her seat in a chair next to Hottman. Giffin swaps her regular glasses for a pair that offer a magnified view and pulls black latex gloves onto her hands.
Hottman talks about viewing the recent eclipse from her Depot Bay, Ore., home, as Giffin mixes ink colors on a small palette. Giffin picks up her pink tattoo machine and turns to Hottman.
“Ready?” she asks.
“Sure,” Hottman responds.
The buzzing of the hand-held machine fills the room. Giffin follows the stencil lines she placed on Hottman’s breast earlier, replacing the temporary purple ink with permanent black ink.
Hottman stares straight at the ceiling, her hands folded across her stomach. She takes long, slow breaths.
“Oh, that stings,” Hottman says. “That really stings.”
Much of Hottman’s breast is numb, particularly the area near where her nipple used to be. But as Giffin works outward, Hottman’s skin stings with every prick of the needle.
It takes Giffin about 30 minutes to complete a quick outline of the design. She sprays an anesthetic on Hottman’s breast to help with the pain and goes back over the thin outline. Next, it’s color. Giffin alternates between shades of pink, coral, teal and blue.
After about 2½ hours of tattooing, Giffin is done.
Hottman stands from the chair and walks over to the mirror on the wall. A chain of flowers with geometrical-shaped pedals curve across the front of her breast. A dragonfly floats nearby.
“Oh, wow. Look at that,” Hottman says. “I like it.”
Hottman was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer after a routine mammogram showed a small lump in her right breast. Her oncologist recommended a lumpectomy and radiation, but Hottman opted for a double mastectomy.
She knows far too many breast cancer survivors. Every one who had a lumpectomy had a recurrence. That’s a risk Hottman wasn’t willing to take.
“I wasn’t as wedded to my breasts as I was to living,” she said.
When it came time for the final step of Hottman’s breast reconstruction, the tattooing, Hottman went to the internet for inspiration. She was drawn to the flowers.
For her left breast, Hottman went to a local craft store, found stencils of flowers she liked and created her design with the dragonfly.
She decided on cherry blossoms for her right breast — the side where the cancer lived and bigger scars remained. Two butterflies with bodies formed out of cancer ribbons hover near the flowers. One ribbon is pink, representing her breast cancer. The other is blue, purple and yellow. That one is for her husband, Dave, who is currently fighting bladder cancer.
She originally had no plans to include the symbol of her cancer. But as her body healed, she realized the ribbon wasn’t a reminder of what she lost, it was a medal for what she accomplished.
“Cancer changes you. It becomes a part of you,” Hottman said. “A symbol to show you survived it isn’t a downer, it’s a positive because you survived.”
Giffin learned how to do repigmentation and areola tattoos from a local pioneer in the field, Mary Jane Haake. In 1989, after enrolling in a repigmentation program that was better at collecting payment than teaching, Giffin reached out to Haake.
Haake, who has a studio in Portland, told Giffin she needed more training. She offered Giffin an apprenticeship — one that didn’t allow Giffin to do any repigmentation. Eventually, Giffin started working in Haake’s studio doing small decorative tattoos one day a week. It’s a gig Giffin continued for 15 years, while building her own business, De Novo Permanent Cosmetics, in Vancouver.
“It was fun,” Giffin said. “I really enjoyed it, enjoyed spending time on the artistic part of it.”
In the early ’90s, Giffin connected with Dr. Cynthia Gray, a Vancouver plastic surgeon, and began providing areola tattoos for Gray’s breast cancer patients. Then, when Dr. Allen Gabriel arrived at PeaceHealth Plastic Surgery in 2008, Haake connected Giffin with the Vancouver plastic surgeon.
Today, Gabriel’s patients make up a significant portion of Giffin’s clientele.
“They might look really good because the reconstruction is great,” Giffin said. “But they still look different, and (the tattoo) let’s them look more like life before breast cancer.”
For Hottman, the reconstruction and tattooing isn’t about looking like she did before cancer but about doing something for herself, something that she says makes her feel better.
And, just as importantly, when Hottman looks in the mirror now, she doesn’t see the scars.
“I see survivor,” she said.
Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; email@example.com; twitter.com/MarissaHarshman