Thursday, October 22, 2015

My Interview with Sandi – the Areola Tattoo Artist

In May 2015, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF) granted Eagle Ridge Hospital Foundation (ERHF) $50,000 for their Areola Tattoo Clinic (an areola is the small circular area, in particular the ring of pigmented skin, surrounding a nipple). This will ensure that over 250 women receive areola tattoos – tattooing a new areola to a reconstructed breast – free of charge.

I was fortunate to visit Eagle Ridge Hospital at the cheque presentation with two other CBCF representatives. We met ERHF staff (they are so lovely and supportive), a breast reconstruction surgeon, a breast cancer survivor, the areola tattoo artist and clinical nurse, Sandi Saunier, and were given a tour of the clinic. Sandi shared stories about how she became involved; it was fascinating.

I left feeling inspired to contact Sandi and interview her for our blog. I wanted to share her story and spread the word about the work that she is doing to help women post-surgery. I’ve purposely saved Sandi’s story for October, as it is now Breast Cancer Action Month. Sandi is making a difference and taking action. Sandi is a hero in my eyes (though she doesn’t look at herself way – but she is). Allow me to share our interview:

Q1: Tell me about yourself and how you got started with areola tattooing 

I am a registered nurse and I started the tattoo clinic. I’ve been at Eagle Ridge Hospital for three years and prior to this I was at Surrey Memorial Hospital, where I started their tattoo clinic in September 2009. The clinic was then moved to Eagle Ridge in 2012.  I work closely with plastic surgeons who communicated that many women, post-reconstructive surgery, were not completing the process because they were either not comfortable going to a tattoo artist, or they did not have enough money.

Once we received funding so that women could receive areola tattoos free of charge, Dr. Dao Nguyen, the plastic surgeon at Eagle Ridge that oversees the tattoo clinic, asked me if I’d be up to the challenge – obviously I was!

Initially I was trained by a nurse from Kentucky that did areola tattooing. I also took a medical tattooing course and learned about performing both areola and cleft lip tattoos. Lastly, I spent time with a non-medical tattoo artist to see if I was comparable and watch his technique.

Q2: Tell me about your experience as an areola tattoo artist

I’ve completed close to 1,000 procedures, and practice makes perfect! I’m constantly researching and finding ways to better my service.

Sandi Saunier, Carol Shields and Dr. Dao Nguyen.

Q3: How did receiving the grant from CBCF make you feel?

It was a huge sigh of relief, because I was somewhat restricted on how many patients I could see per year. Usually I’d have to take two months off from the tattoo procedures because there was not enough money. The waiting lists were getting longer and patients couldn’t receive the procedures because there was not enough funding.

Eagle Ridge is part of the Fraser Health Authority, but I get calls from people outside of Fraser Health too. With my new additional funds, I’m now able to look after women in the entire Lower Mainland. I want to help everyone. 

Q4: What do you want other women to know when facing breast reconstruction?

I appreciate where every woman is coming from; every story is different. It is each woman’s choice if she wants the tattoo done or not. But I feel if she is waffling about the nipple tattoo, she must do it. It’s the easiest part of reconstruction. You don’t need a ride home, you’re wide awake and you’re talking. During our time we decide on the size, colour and shape. You’re able to bring a family member in for support, but you don’t have to. I provide local freezing so it is not painful. I am certified and can confidently say that the procedure is painless. If you’ve done the pain of reconstruction, it is truly the icing on the cake. So easy – we talk, it takes two hours, it transforms your breasts from “I just had cancer breasts” to breasts that you can actually forget have undergone anything. It goes from a mannequin breast to a real breast. I invite all of my patients, post and pre-surgery, to call and talk to me – I provide my home phone number.

Q5: Is there anything personal about yourself you’d like to share?

The joy of my job is that I am able to send off satisfied ladies. The procedure takes away some of the anxiety they may have had if they did not complete the tattoo. It’s a plus for me and plus for them.
When I was a young girl my grandmother had breast cancer. I remember seeing her and she looked like she’d been burned from her neck to her belly button because of the radiation – she had no reconstruction. When I see how remarkable these women look after reconstruction and the tattoos, I am amazed by the progress that has been made so that they don’t have battle scars. There is never a day that goes by that I don’t think about my grandma.

Watch Sandi and breast cancer survivor, Carol Shields on Shaw’s That Talk Show.


Tia O'Grady
Marketing and Communication Officer
Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation

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