Álvaro Quesada is inking realistic-looking nipples on breast cancer survivors at the Madrid infirmary, the first Spanish hospital to offer this service for free.
by Julia Migné
One person every 10 minutes is diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK alone. That’s equivalent to more than 55,000 people diagnosed every year. According to Breast Cancer Care, of these 55,000 people, over 80% have surgery and 43% of women have a mastectomy.
Mastectomies are carried out when the tumour detected is large; when more than one area of cancer is found in the breast or when the tumour is located in the middle of the patient’s breast. Women facing this operation are offered with the possibility to have breast reconstruction at the same time as the mastectomy or can opt for a delayed reconstruction.
However, many cancer survivors who reach that stage have already dealt with so many medical procedures and treatments that they may not be ready to go through another surgery. In the UK, only 21% of women decided to undergo immediate breast reconstruction.
Miles away from the UK, a Spanish infirmary is offering its patients closure through the inking of realistic-looking nipple-areola tattoos. The first hospital in Spain to offer this service, Madrid Infirmary, works in collaboration with a local tattoo artist, Álvaro Quesada.
“About two years ago, one of the hospital doctors met my father and ended up talking about tattoos and the project they wanted for the hospital’s breast unit,” explains Álvaro. “Then they called me.”
The 32-year-old has always been a very creative person but used to work in an audiovisual company who closed down a few years ago. “I decided to reinvent myself and I started to learn the technique of tattooing,” he explains. Taking time away from his tattoo studio, Sugar Tattoo Madrid, the artist now spends some of his time at Madrid Infirmary.
3D nipple and areola tattooing techniques have been developed around the world and have been adopted by many breast cancer survivors. Some of these women had nipple reconstruction done but felt that their nipples had flattened out or are no longer dimensional. Others were just not ready to undergo another surgical procedure and turned to art instead.
“The technique is something simple for someone accustomed to tattooing daily,” says Álvaro. “I took reference to the work of other tattooists like Vinnie Myers and little by little I improved my own style.”
American tattoo artist, Vinnie Myers has successfully tattooed thousands of women. According to his website, his techniques “provide clients with the most realistic representations of lifelike nipples and areolas available.”
For lots of women, 3D nipple and areola tattoos give them the opportunity to reconcile with their bodies and go back to a sense of normalcy. “The importance of these tattoos is enormous because we speak of ‘finishing’ a process, of closing a painful stage for many women,” explains the Spanish tattoo artist. “And all this help does not take more than an hour of my time!”
This process is important and emotional for women who have been through the difficult and often traumatic experience of breast cancer. Symbol of new beginnings, the procedure allows women to reach a certain closure. “I just ‘listen’ to them,” says Álvaro. “I give them my heart and I live the moment with emotion and affection.”
“Every minute in the hospital is a huge therapy for me. An injection of good things, energy and of people wanting to live each day.”
Lorenzo Rabadan, the doctor who first approached Álvaro years ago, invited him to train staff on the technique and the tattoo artist explains that he is now “dedicated to supervising some more difficult cases and exposing the technique live in some congresses.”
Only offered at Madrid Infirmary, this technique has a positive impact on the lives of cancer survivors and the hope is that it could become widespread in the country.
“It is the future of medicine, it is the end of any road,” adds Álvaro. “A unit of medical pigmentation in all hospitals: dermatology, burns, cancer, scars, etc. This is the beginning of something very big and all hospitals will end up creating teams like ours.”