By Daysi Calavia-Robertson Newsday
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) For six years now, every October Olga Lucia has been hosting a "Day of Beauty" for breast cancer survivors at her office, giving them complimentary areola tattoos and enlisting a professional makeup artist and a hair stylist who treat the patients to free services.
Snezana Matovic wore her nicest black jacket and an excited smile into a permanent makeup clinic in Manhasset. After all, it was a very special occasion, one she had waited more than five years for: the day she'd finally get her nipples back.
"Will it hurt? Will the tattoo hurt?" she asked, turning to face a thin woman wearing a baby-pink smock and medical mask. The woman was Olga Lucia. Born in Colombia, Lucia is a cosmetic tattoo artist who for the past 25 years has been helping Long Island breast cancer patients regain their old sense of self by tattooing areolas on their new breasts after reconstructive surgery.
"No, it won't," Lucia said.
"Well, I had my eyebrows tattooed and that hurt," Matovic retorted.
"That's only because you didn't have them tattooed by me," Olga Lucia said jokingly.
Matovic, who in 2013 was diagnosed with breast cancer after noticing a small patch of orange peel-textured skin on her right breast, said the cancer broke her threshold for pain.
"When all of that was said and done," she said, "the last thing I cared about were my nipples. I was too scared to go through a procedure of any type again. It felt more important then to just be alive."
That changed two years ago when Matovic met and married Peter Aber, 60, of Bay Shore, a man she describes as "so loving" and "100 percent understanding."
"But I only let him see my breasts once," she said. "It was hard because I, myself, didn't even like looking at them in the mirror. He said 'I don't care. I love you,' but he knew this was important to me."
Aber took it upon himself to call plastic surgeons to inquire about areola tattoos for Matovic, who had been using temporary nipple tattoos he found online.
"I had to put a new one on every three days," Matovic said. "I would shower, and they would fade."
Aber said many practices he called did not offer the tattooing; the ones that did charged thousands of dollars.
Health insurance was not an option for the couple, he said, because "our health insurance did not fully cover it." "We'd have to pay about $5,000 out of pocket," Matovic said.
Finally, Aber stumbled upon Olga Lucia's Permanent Cosmetics office online. He called and explained their situation, and Lucia told him she'd take care of it.
For six years now, every October Lucia has "taken care of it," by hosting a "Day of Beauty" for breast cancer survivors at her office, giving them complimentary areola tattoos and enlisting a professional makeup artist and a hair stylist who treat the patients to free services. Patients in need also receive complimentary wigs.
"This is my gift. This ability that I have, my art, my life, I have it all because God gave it to me. That's why I feel that it's so important for me to pay it forward and use my skill to help others," she said. "I started receiving so many calls from patients who needed this, they needed their areolas tattooed because they were walking around feeling incomplete, but for one reason or another, they just couldn't afford it. Their insurance didn't fully cover it or they were asked to meet a high deductible, and others were uninsured."
Traditional inks and specialized cosmetic pigments are used in the tattoos, which take about an hour per breast. Doctors suggest waiting about four months after surgery before being tattooed. Complications may include allergic reactions and infections, but experts said they are rare.
Lucia has done complimentary areola tattoos on more than 40 breast cancer patients on the Island.
Diane Rudolfsky, 61, who had a double mastectomy in June 2015, had been on Lucia's to-be-tattooed waiting list since last year.
"I was the first person here this morning. Her very first appointment of the day," said Rudolfsky, of Lynbrook after being tattooed. "For such a long time, I didn't want to look at myself. But now, they look great! They look like breasts again!"
Rudolfsky said using insurance would have cost about $7,500. Her eyes lit up as she talked about Lucia: "I mean, thanks to her I feel like myself again."
Dr. Neil Tanna, a plastic surgeon with Northwell Health who specializes in breast reconstruction surgery and performs areola tattoos, said for patients who have had reconstructive surgery, nipple tattoos are life-changing.
"Studies have proven that restoring the breast mound and the nipple, restores the woman's sense of self. It's something that's often closely tied to her sense of femininity," said Tanna, 38, who has been operating on breast cancer patients for the past seven years. "The psychological benefits of completing this process are immense ... It's an important part of the patient's overall recovery."
The same rings true for male breast cancer patients, said Scott Stone, a former East Meadow resident who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. Stone had a right mastectomy in 1993 and got a nipple tattoo sometime after.
"If you think about it, men spend a lot more time than women without our shirts on," said Stone, 61. "We're walking around outside the house without a shirt on when it's hot, if we go swimming to the beach or pool, we're bare-chested there, too, so it definitely takes a toll on your confidence and yes, I was self-conscious to be out in public with only one nipple but that changed when I got the tattoo."
It changed something for Matovic, too. As she laid in Lucia's office with her breasts exposed, the cold tattoo machine pressed against her skin with its whirring sounds filling the silences in the room, she finally let herself cry, not because of the tattoo. "I never cry," she said in between laughs.
"I don't know why I'm crying, but as I'm laying here I'm reliving everything I've been through in the last few years. I never had time to cry," she said. "But now, with this, I feel like it's all finally over. Thinking about everything, it makes me sad, but right now I'm also so, so, grateful and happy."
WHERE BREAST CANCER PATIENTS CAN GET AREOLA TATTOOS Aesthetic Plastic Surgery/New York Breast Reconstruction Associates, nipple and areola reconstruction; aestheticplasticsurgerypc.com; 33 Northern Blvd., Suite 160, Great Neck; 516-498-8400
Neil Tanna Plastic Surgery, breast reconstruction and 3-D nipple tattoos; breastflap.com; 1991 Marcus Ave., Suite 102, Lake Success; 516-497-7900
Olga Lucia Permanent Cosmetics, areola and 3-D nipple restoration and scar camouflaging, permanentcosmeticsbyolga.com; 1129 Northern Blvd., Suite 301, Manhasset; 516-627-0722
Permanent Cosmetics by Jacqueline Carini, areola and 3-D nipple restoration and scar camouflaging, areolatat.com; private studio in West Islip residence; 516-901-2359
Stony Brook Medicine Bellavie MedSpa, areola Restoration and 3-D nipple tattoos, medspa.stonybrookmedicine.edu; 23 S. Howell Ave., Suite F, Centereach; 631-38-3950