By Brenda Della Casa
A nurse by trade and a tattoo artist by chance, Tara Dunsmore has a unique understanding of both sides of the spectrum when it comes to a breast cancer diagnosis as well as the complex feelings surrounding the tattoos women are often given during treatment. Diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 39, Tara underwent a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction only to be met with frustration when she could not find a tattoo artist who could create a realistic-looking nipple.
Deciding that patients deserved more, Dunsmore became a certified areola tattoo artist and founded Pink Ink Tattoo, a female-focused business dedicating to providing women realistic-looking options in a variety of colors and sizes for their tattoos. Today, she shares more about her treatment journey and her dedication to helping others heal with dignity and compassion.
Tell us a little about your journey.
I was 39 years old when they gave me the report that I had breast cancer. Surely, they had me confused with someone else. I had no family history and I couldn’t feel any lumps.
Being a nurse for so long and looking at reports all day; I knew what that report was stating about me. I grabbed every medical book I had. Quickly reading chapter after chapter and researching online. Spending every second praying and talking with my family about the right treatment path for me. A trip to the plastic surgeon’s office and then quickly into surgery was what I thought would happen, but God’s plan wasn’t going along with my timeline. I was scheduled for surgery on March 13th, 2012. Just two days before my surgery, the breast surgeon called and rescheduled the surgery because of insurance issues. I was devastated. I cried for hours. As if that wasn’t enough, I was getting ready to receive even more horrific news. I got an urgent call from family telling me that my dad who lived over 500 miles away from me was dying. I dropped everything and rushed to be by his side, but sadly he passed away on March 16. On his 62nd birthday. Driving back home to North Carolina to plan my father’s funeral, my breast surgeon called again. She said “New plan, let’s do a lumpectomy just to get it out. Then we’ll reschedule the bilateral surgery for a different date.” I went numb; I felt helpless and powerless over my body and just wanted to get this out of me.
During the post-op. I got the whole story. The cancer had advanced and was invasive. Invasive ductal carcinoma, high grade. After an intense conversation with my breast surgeon about my body, my life, and my choice- we scheduled a date for the bilateral mastectomy. Months later my plastic surgeon talked to me about areola, 3D tattooing. We searched for months looking for an expert artist that felt right. Sadly, after not finding the right one, I gave up and allowed the nurse to perform them. She gave me three options, chocolate brown, bubble gum pink or nude. I almost fell out of the chair. I thought to myself; “Are you kidding me? This is my last hoorah? Survivors deserve more! Survivors deserve the best.” Therefore, I deserved the best.
Feeling my own pain, and dissatisfaction; I decided I was going to train with the best areola tattoo instructor in the country. Here I was, formally trained as a nurse, trading one needle for another to keep helping others. When they handed me that tattoo pin, I knew this was my purpose, my gift, my answer to “why me”. God had a higher meaning for my life, and I was ready to live it. In April 2014, I founded Pink Ink Tattoo. Pink Ink Tattoo has now expanded nationally. With events and recognition internationally. I am now in 4 states and travel to reach survivors who may not be able to reach me. Working alongside many wonderful plastic surgeons. The power of survivorship starts within ourselves. I give back every chance I get, and I give to other women hurting just like I did. Today, I have the opportunity to give survivors a finishing touch to the long, emotional journey of breast cancer. Helping to restore their confidence and feel whole again.
The most amazing thing I learned throughout this journey is that the second act of your life can be far more important than your first, but it’s up to you. I’m a nurse; a mom of three beautiful children, a grandma, a wife, a kidney donor to my sister (yes, I donated my kidney along the way), and a Certified 3D Areola tattoo artist. Today, I wouldn’t trade my life, my path for any other path that I could have chosen to travel. I am right where I belong.
Were you aware of any of the potential cardiac side effects of radiation?
Yes; as a nurse who has cared for breast cancer patients, I knew exactly what the side effects could be on the body.
Have you experienced any cardiac side effects?
No, I did not need radiation after my bilateral mastectomy.
What was your personal experience with radiation tattoos?
Previously caring for patients as a nurse I would notice the areas for the documentation but now as a Certified areola, 3d tattoo artist caring for breast cancer patients, I see those infamous radiation spots almost daily. A lot of clients say “I have never had a tattoo” I say to them, “oh, well I see two tattoos” they laugh, and they understand that I “get it” I understand what those radiation tattoo identifiers symbolize. Sometimes those spots are a reminder of the pain they went through, and in that case, they may ask for me to help remove and camouflage them. Which is my honor, helping heal them in any way that I can.
What inspired you to use your talent to start supporting other patients?
Experiencing the pain, and the lack of options firsthand is what made me decide that I was going to do this to help my fellow breast cancer survivors with areola, 3d nipple tattoos. I knew this was my purpose. That God had a higher meaning for my life; and I was ready to live it. In April 2014, I founded Pink Ink Tattoo. I give back every chance I get, and I give to other women hurting just like I did. Today; I can give survivors that finishing touch to the long, emotional journey of breast cancer. Restoring their confidence and helping them feel whole again.
Tell us about the tattoo services you provide?
I specialize in Areola Complex, 3D Nipple and Scar Camouflage Tattooing. I provide realistic areola tattoos and skin tone scar camouflage for Survivors. But also, for anyone that has lost their areola nipple, or has scarring on their body. Including those that are in transition from one gender to another, breast augmentations, and natural areolas that have lost or do not have pigment naturally. I also do scar camouflage for body scars, breast augmentation scars, surgical scars, and skin issues like vitiligo. I only use ink that is made in the USA. MRI safe ink that is gamma-sterilized and contains no heavy metals. Unlike traditional tattoo ink.
What have your clients said about radiation tattoos?
Sometimes they say those spots are a reminder of the pain they went through, and most ask for me to help remove and camouflage them. Which is my honor, helping heal them in any way that I can.
What do you feel are the benefits of having a tattooless technology available?
I feel this will immensely help patients emotionally heal much faster without having that radiation tattoo reminder that they had cancer. Physical scars and side effects from treatment are already going to be part of their daily self-image, self-reminder, elevating something even as small as a pinhead dark spot can have a huge positive effect.
Tell us what inspires you most about what you do.
Knowing the immense positive impact areola tattooing has on one’s self-image, helping to restore their confidence, helping them to feel whole again. Seeing each person face as they glance in the mirror for the first time in a long time and look whole again. The tears and the smiles!
With me; each survivor gets to make every decision they want with the tattooing procedure. They will have a voice in their care, and they will choose the color and size that they desire. This is something special that I did not have with my areola tattoo procedure. I knew using my medical knowledge and breast cancer experience I would be able to offer a positive experience for survivors, making sure that they know they are not alone, and that I understand because I am also a breast cancer survivor.