Local tattoo artist aids in breast cancer recovery

Getting diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing treatment is traumatic enough, but for some women who have had mastectomies to remove the cancerous cells, the effects are devastating.

One area tattoo artist has found a way to help alleviate some of the stress and depression these women suffer after surgery.

Becky Olson of Oak Grove has a shop on King Road, The Body Shop Ink LLC, where she does paramedical tattoos. This includes eyebrows and eyelashes for those who have lost their hair during chemotherapy, as well as areola tattoos for those who have had mastectomies.

“I started doing tattoos back in 2003,” Olson said. “I learned to do it in Baton Rouge at the Permanent Cosmetic Institute, then did an internship in Ocean Springs for nine months at the Permanent Make Up Clinic.

“I did have to get a special certification to do paramedical tattoos, but I knew this was something I needed to do because it is the last step in the recovery process (from breast cancer).”

Breast cancer survivor Dawn Gillis, 69, of Hattiesburg said getting the areola tattoos changed her life.

“It is unbelievable what this did for my self-esteem,” Gillis said. “It made me feel whole again. Like nothing was missing from me anymore.”

Her husband, John Gillis, 72, agreed the tattoos helped Dawn regain self-confidence.

“I could tell it affected her and she really felt conscious about it because she didn’t feel quite complete,” John Gillis said. “So when she got the tattoos done, it did a ton of good for her.”

Dawn Gillis, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, had previously gone through breast reconstruction. It was her doctor who recommended getting the tattoos.

“The doctor I went to recommended doing the 3-D tattoo because it would cost less and take less time,” Dawn Gillis said. “It used to be you could get the reconstruction covered by your health insurance but now you can’t, so that’s an incentive to do the 3-D tattoo, and that’s how I met Becky.”

Dr. Mike Cheng, a radiation oncologist who practices at the Forrest General Cancer Center, said areola tattoos can enhance breast reconstruction.

“When you get a mastectomy they remove the whole breast, so even if you get a breast reconstruction, it is just a mound of flesh on your chest,” he said.

Dawn Gillis said the reconstruction process is long and expensive.

“When you go through reconstruction, the nipple tattooing is the last part,” she said. “What they do is take some tissue from your leg to reconstruct the nipple and then they tattoo the skin to resemble the natural color of a nipple and areola. I went through the whole thing roughly two years after I had my mastectomy. It took months of appointments and thousands of dollars to get through.”

Olson said areola tattoos cost around $600.

Breast reconstruction can sometimes cause other problems, Olson said.

“Even when you do the reconstruction, what they created can necrotize (the tissue will die), so anyway you are back to square one,” she said. “What I do is just do a tattoo on the skin to make it look like there was a reconstruction.

“A session takes about an hour and 20 minutes, and the only difference between what I do and a normal tattoo is that I use a local anesthetic.”

Olson has plenty of experience with paramedical tattoos. She worked with the Hattiesburg Plastic Surgery Center and Hattiesburg Clinic, where Gillis was one of her first clients.

She opened her own shop in March and still receives referrals from area doctors.

“As of today, I’m sure I’ve done over 100 tattoos,” Olson said. “I know I do roughly 14-16 a year, and I’ve been doing this for 10 years, so you do the math.”

Her work looks realistic enough to pass inspection.

“I’ve seen some of the work and it does look real from a distance,” Cheng said. “I think it’s good work.”

Even the patients are satisfied with Olson’s work.

“When I saw it I thought it was real,” Gillis said. “I was so excited to show my husband, who thought it looked real as well. When I went for my appointment to see my gynecologist, even he said it looked real, and he already knew what I had gone through with all of my procedures.”

John Gillis said he could see the difference the tattoos made in his wife’s life.

“Doctors don’t realize the impact going through all of that has on a woman,” he said. “It’s a horrible process, so Becky being able to do this for Dawn made a world of difference.”

Olson said she hopes to continue her work for the foreseeable future, and is training fellow tattoo artist Joey Boone to do paramedical tattoos, because she does not know of many others in the Pine Belt who can do them.

“The thing is that breast cancer does not discriminate,” Olson said. “You can get it at any age, no matter your lifestyle or background or even your gender. They are still not sure what actually causes breast cancer, unlike other cancers you can get.

“When going through a mastectomy, you take away a woman’s femininity. She doesn’t feel whole or like herself, and all she can see is what she has lost. Building the confidence in these women means more to me than anything, even more than the money.”

Dawn Gillis knows that firsthand.

“A procedure like what I went through really affects women who are not strong within themselves,” she said. “There have been cases of husbands leaving wives based on mastectomies, so this could really help the women who have to go through this.”