For many women, a mastectomy is an unfortunate but necessary part of breast cancer treatment. Whilst the procedure is effective in removing the breast cancer, it can create many unpleasant physical and emotional side-effects such as body image and confidence issues.

There are a number of post-mastectomy options available via the NHS, including breast and nipple reconstruction, but an increasingly popular procedure that people are choosing to have is a 3D nipple tattoo.

We sat down with Helen Aldous, a 3D nipple tattoo artist to find out about how the procedure works, if it hurts and why people choose to get nipple tattoos.

Replacing a nipple lost to breast cancer

My name is Helen Aldous and I live and work just outside Holmfirth in West Yorkshire. I create permanent 3D nipple tattoos for people who have lost their own nipples due to breast cancer and mastectomy.

My background is as an artist and professionally trained traditional tattooist. I started creating permanent nipple tattoos after my own mum was diagnosed with breast cancer and I wanted to be able to offer a permanent nipple tattoo that won’t fade away.

I discovered Breast Cancer Haven a few years ago after chatting with one of the staff members who told me more about the service. After discovering the support Breast Cancer Haven offers I now include a leaflet about their services in all of my aftercare packs that I give to clients so that people know about the fabulous free support they can access.

Replicating nipple colour, shape and texture

A nipple tattoo is a hyper-realistic image of a nipple tattooed onto the breast to replace the one that has been lost to breast cancer. It’s possible to replicate the colour, shape and texture of an existing nipple in the case of a unilateral mastectomy.

When the skin is flat, with no reconstruction, it’s possible to create the effect of a raised nipple on flat skin by using artistic techniques. A nipple tattoo can also make a nipple reconstruction look more natural by adding colour.

A full stop at the end of your breast cancer experience

The benefits of permanent nipple tattoos can be very profound. Because I create the nipples using permanent pigment, this frees the person from having to return to hospital for regular tattooing. In this way it allows the client to put a full stop at the end of their breast cancer journey and find a sense of closure.

Nipple tattoos may restore symmetry to the breasts and allow the client to feel more at home with their reconstructed shape. Some of my clients have reported to me that they were comfortable enough to get changed in a communal changing room or in front of their partner for the first time since surgery after getting a 3D nipple tattoo. It really can restore body confidence. It’s very powerful and wonderful to see people feeling good about their body again after going though the trauma of breast cancer treatment.

3D nipple tattoos are different from regular semi-permanent nipple tattoos

Many nipple tattoos are created using semi-permanent inks which fade, lose their detail and will need a top up every year or so. This constant tattooing damages the skin and means there’s no end to the tattooing and breast cancer. It also becomes very expensive over the years. Permanent nipple tattoos are created using specialist permanent pigments and so won’t fade away, leaving you to move on with your life.

The 3D nipple tattoo procedure

Typically, the 3D nipple tattoo procedure takes a few hours to do - with me, it takes about three hours. The actual tattoo takes around 45 minutes per nipple. However, I allow lots of time to prepare. This involves selecting colours, matching the colours to an existing nipple and deciding on size and placement of the nipple. The client and I work on this together until we are both happy and then I do the actual tattoo. Afterwards, the tattoo is covered with a waterproof breathable dressing.

Does it hurt?

Most people find nipple tattooing surprisingly painless. Very often the surgery has made the breast area numb so most clients do not notice much discomfort - just a little vibration.

The cost of the procedure

Procedure wise, I create the nipples over two appointments. This gives the most natural effect. I do an initial session and then a second session six weeks later where we perfect the design - refining the texture and details, darkening the colour if needed and ensuring any scarring has held the ink well.

Prices can vary depending on which tattoo artist you pick it's usually It's advised that you talk to the person you're thinking of having a 3D nipple tattoo done with before committing to anything.

If you’re considering getting a 3D nipple tattoo but want to talk with somebody about the procedure as well as other options available to you, get in touch with Helenyour local Breast Cancer Haven centre or your breast cancer nurse specialist.