Yonkers tattoo artist colors in the details after breast cancer surgery

This story by features writer Heather Salerno ran in Life & Style on Oct. 21.  Photo by Tania Savayan.

Carrie Pataky enters an exam room at a plastic surgeon’s office in Scarsdale and introduces herself to Constance Rogers , who wears a thin, blue paper gown that covers her chest.

As Pataky unpacks equipment from a small rolling suitcase — squeeze bottles of ink, a hand-held, electric machine, sterile needles, powder-free latex gloves — she offers to share her iced coffee with Rogers, and the two begin an easy conversation about the procedure that’s about to take place.

It won’t take very long, about 15 minutes or so. And Rogers shouldn’t feel any pain, just some vibration from the machine.

“I hope I just feel better,” says Rogers, 52, a divorced mother of two and Poughkeepsie resident, who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. “That it gives me back confidence.”

That is Pataky’s job as a tattoo artist, one with a unique talent for making survivors like Rogers feel beautiful again. Women have come from as far away as England to see the 44-year-old Yonkers native, who has built a solid niche tattooing nipples and areolas on women after breast cancer surgery.

For these women, Pataky is the last step in a long, harrowing journey through treatment and recovery. She’s giving them an exceptional gift: their self-esteem, and with that, the ability to move forward with their lives.

Even with full nipple reconstruction, a post-mastectomy patient’s breasts lack the skin pigmentation that makes them look completely natural. Some survivors say it’s like looking at a blank canvas; others have described their breasts as a face with no features.

Over the last six years, Pataky has worked on more than 500 women. Her specialty is rare among tattoo artists; most often specially trained nurses in a surgeon’s office — or even the doctors themselves — are the ones doing the areola tattoos.

Pataky says other tattoo artists have told her that they entered the field because they wanted to create art‚ not areolas.

“I believe if we have a skill and a talent in putting ink on the skin, we should use it the best we can, for whatever we can,” says Pataky. “Whether it’s putting a flower on you…or giving you areolas.”

Continue reading

Breast cancer talismans bring smiles, ease pain

Here’s a story by Karen Croke that ran in the Life & Style section on Oct. 11. Photos by Tania Savayan.

Call them good luck charms, or talismans, or simply smile inducers on the darkest of days, but for those facing treatment for breast cancer, sometimes the simplest things make all the difference.

For Bonnie Draeger, Hope and Grace come in handy. While recovering from bilateral breast cancer, Draeger, the author of “When Cancer Strikes A Friend,” (Skyhorse), carried a set of two pink teddy bears given to her by a friend named Karen.

“The first was named ‘Hope’ and she arrived shortly after my initial diagnosis,” says Draeger, a long-time White Plains resident, who had the bears along at a recent visit to the Dickstein Cancer Center. “When a second cancer was discovered a month later, Karen gave me a second bear that I named ‘Grace’ as I would need a great deal of grace to handle two different breast cancers at once,” she says.

Her surgeon asked if Draeger wanted to take the bears into surgery with her. She declined, although at a crucial moment, she says, “they did remind me to face cancer with hope and grace each and every day throughout my recovery.”

Continue reading

Learn more about testing for the breast cancer genes

This information also ran in Sunday’s Life & Style section about testing for the breast cancer genes.


A woman’s chance of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer or both skyrockets if she inherits a harmful mutation in genes — called BRCA1 and BRCA2 — linked to those diseases.
It’s important to understand, however, that most of these cancers are not hereditary. BRCA gene mutations are responsible for about 5 percent of breast cancers and about 10 to 15 percent of ovarian cancers. Also, not everyone who is BRCA-positive will get sick.
Still, those with these mutations do face a significantly higher risk.
According to the National Cancer Institute, a BRCA-positive woman is about five times more likely to develop breast cancer than a woman in the general population (whose risk is about 12 percent). The average woman’s odds of getting ovarian cancer are about 1.4 percent, compared to 15 to 40 percent of women with the BRCA mutation. That knowledge allows people to make educated decisions about their future, which may include steps to reduce their cancer risk, such as increased cancer screenings, prophylactic surgery (like removing healthy breasts and ovaries) and cancer-prevention drugs.
So is a cancer gene test right for you?
Una Hopkins, a nurse practitioner certified in genetics at White Plains Hospital’s Dickstein Cancer Center, says that those with the following in their background might want to consider it:

Continue reading

A mother’s choice

Here’s a story that ran in Sunday’s Life & Style section by reporter Heather Salerno. All photos are by Tania Savayan.

A mother’s choice: Allison Gilbert tests positive for breast cancer gene, makes life-altering decision

Irvington’s Allison Gilbert knows exactly what the human face of cancer looks like.

It’s the face of her grandmother, Henny, who died of breast cancer when Gilbert was a little girl. It’s the face of her mother, Lynn, who died of ovarian cancer in 1996. It’s also the face of her father, Sidney, who died of lung cancer five years later, leaving Gilbert an adult orphan at 31.

A few years after losing her dad, Gilbert discovered that this disease’s attack on her family wasn’t random: It’s a tragic birthright. Testing showed that she inherited a mutation in a gene called BRCA1, which drastically increases her chance of getting breast cancer, ovarian cancer or both. In fact, she was told that — without intervention — the odds of developing breast cancer in her lifetime were as much as 85 percent.

That revelation increased Gilbert’s fear that she might die young like her relatives, leaving her husband, Mark Weintraub, and their two children – Jake, now 12, and Lexi, 10 — behind. In 2007, with her family complete, she underwent surgery to remove her healthy ovaries — a decision The Journal News chronicled — and she continued to see doctors every three months for a breast exam, mammogram, sonogram or MRI, in order to catch breast cancer in an early stage. With each appointment, though, there was the potential for a dreadful diagnosis.

Gilbert had another option besides careful surveillance: another prophylactic, or preventive, surgery. Removing both still-healthy breasts would reduce her odds of getting breast cancer to about 1 percent, far lower than the average woman, whose lifetime risk is about 12 percent.

The Journal News caught up with the 42-year-old this year, after she made the decision to go forward with that operation, and followed her throughout the surgical process, in real time and on Facebook. The move, she hopes, will keep her around for Jake and Lexi for a very long time.

“I’m trying to make this a parenting decision,” she says. “It’s really about my kids. Even though it’s my body, I feel it’s really more about them than it’s about me.”



Taboola Article Player

Given her family history, it’s a choice that Gilbert knew she’d have to make eventually. But for her, the turning point came in 2008, when her beloved aunt, Ronnie, her mother’s sister, told the family that she, too, had an aggressive form of breast cancer. She passed away barely three months later.

“It was a hard death,” says Gilbert. “Sometime shortly thereafter I went on the warpath.”

Continue reading

Rica’s story, one year later

In case you missed it, here’s the story that ran Monday in Life & Style:

Treatment over, blogger Rica Mendes looks ahead to the next chapter of life

Last October, Rica Mendes shared her fight against breast cancer in a monthlong series of blog posts on LoHud.com.

A year later, she is relieved to be cancer-free.

But the difficulties continue for Mendes, a 38-year-old single mother of two who lost her job and is battling with insurance companies as she wades through piles of unpaid bills.

Recently she learned that the hospital where she was treated has a “financial aid department,” but that you need to apply for Medicaid and be turned down before they’ll even consider your case.

The “financial ramifications” of being a cancer patient are clearly among her greatest challenges, says Mendes.

“COBRA alone is so outrageous right now, it’s higher than my mortgage,” she says. “And God help me if I tried to get private insurance.”

As if all that weren’t enough, Mendes’ mother was also diagnosed recently with breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy two weeks ago and will need six weeks of radiation. Mendes is BRCA positive, which means she has a genetic predisposition to the disease, but her mother is not. “Her cancer can’t be any more different than mine,” says Mendes. “That’s how wacky this disease is.” Her mother’s prognosis, she adds, is excellent.

Mendes’ own life changed abruptly last year, just a month after her 37th birthday.

In July, she learned from a mammogram that she had invasive early-stage breast cancer, then found out she had the gene. In August 2011, she had a double mastectomy. In September, she started four months of chemotherapy. In February, her chest expanders were replaced with breast implants.

Her last surgical procedure was in May, when she had her nipples reconstructed. This past July, doctors finally said she could resume exercising.

For Mendes, who’d been an avid cyclist — and who remains a leader in Livestrong, the cancer-support organization founded by Lance Armstrong — getting active again has done wonders for her spirit.

She started by canoeing around nearby Lake Kitchawan every morning, and this summer, she took part in an adventure camp for cancer survivors, overcoming her fear of heights as she went rock climbing in the Colorado Rockies.

Her body is slowly springing back, too. Mendes lost her hair during chemotherapy — in one of her video posts last October, she cried as she held a clump of hair that came out on camera — but now she’s got a head full of curls.

“I look like a really sad Little Orphan Annie,” she says with a laugh. “If it was 1978, I’d be fine.”

It’s her ability to laugh at herself that’s helped pull her though, says Mendes. Welcoming her “twins” — the new breast implants — with a “booby shower” at her home this spring is a case in point, she says.

“I am very grateful for my sense of humor, as macabre and twisted as it is.”

She’s also gained perspective, she says, and has, quite literally, taken time to smell the roses she planted in the garden outside her South Salem home. Recently she put up a hammock, where she relaxes with a cocktail and does absolutely nothing.

While her previous job as Web operations manager for a Connecticut start-up had provided a steady income, it also meant she had to deal with crises late into the night, says Mendes.

Life was becoming increasingly hectic.

“Cancer is one of those things where, not only does it grab you by the shoulders and slap you across the face and say, ‘Hi, I’m here,’ but when you’ve survived it and go back into real life — unless your job was your passion and you were enjoying everything about your life prior to that — you just sit back and say, ‘Why did I put myself through this for so many years?’” she says. “Or ‘Why do I put with this BS?’”

These days, she is working as a temp and hoping to be offered a job that is permanent. Her friends at Livestrong have remained a strong support system, she says. And it’s very likely another adventure is in the works.

“In a sense I feel like nothing is stopping me now except for what’s in my own head,” she says.

What about women who find themselves newly diagnosed with breast cancer?

Don’t hide, urges Mendes.

“Reach out to an organization like Livestrong, because if you keep it pent up, if you don’t get it off your chest — even if you’ve been the biggest introvert your entire life — it’s going to eat at you,” she says.

“You’ve already got cancer eating you alive. Why let stress and emotion do it too?”

To read more, go to LoHud.com/breastcancer, where you will find links to Mendes’ other blogs.

Rica Mendes: One Year Later

Rica Mendes, who blogged about her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment here on this blog on LoHud.com last year, says she feels more like a “recoverer” than a “survivor.”

Tania Savayan / The Journal News

A quote from her Rica’s Livestrong Advetures  blog:

Once the scalpels invaded my skin, once parts of me were carved up and discarded, replaced by synthetic prosthesis, I became something… someone… else. I think the question still looms, who or what have I become?

We’ll chat Mendes, a Livestrong Leader, at noon Oct. 4 about the challenges of coping with cancer after the treatment is over. Join us by following @lohud and using the hashtag #lohudbc. Rica’s Twitter handle is @rica620.

Here’s the blog post in its entirety:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My, how time flies…

Sometimes, it’s weird how time flies.

Sunday, 1 year ago, I had my double mastectomy. 1 year and 2 days ago, I still had my breasts, nipples, normal sensation, etc. Now? I have foreign parts installed, tissue that’s technically my own flesh and blood, but feel nothing, let alone hardly feel a part of me, and a strange numbing feeling in my chest.

I think Sunday, far more than my cancerversary, signaled that it’s been a year since I felt “normal.” Even knowing I had cancer in my body, I still felt whole. I still felt like myself. Once the scalpels invaded my skin, once parts of me were carved up and discarded, replaced by synthetic prosthesis, I became something… someone… else. I think the question still looms, who or what have I become?

The obvious response, given the context of this blog is, “SURVIVOR.” But I’m not so sure about that. “Recoverer,” yes. I recovered from surgery. I recovered from the infections.

But I didn’t survive – at least, I’m not sure that I have. My breasts didn’t survive. My hair didn’t survive. My feelings and senses didn’t survive. Most of the skin in my chest area survived.

My strength didn’t survive. My cycling and athletics haven’t survived… not yet. My ability to find ways to bounce back better than before hasn’t surfaced, yet. I’m struggling to do it.

And I can’t find a way to embrace the new boobs, yet. Perhaps if my nerve endings were still functional, I could. Or if everytime I flex a muscle, they didn’t ripple and bounce around like a freakish body builder, I might be able to start. They still don’t look like breasts.  One is larger than the other, one is fuller than the other, the horizontal scars are still visible, and have left some strange sculpting. They nipples still look like Frankenboob. Forget the cancer: If I had breasts like this before, I’d be seeking reconstruction.

By no means am I saying that Dr. Nordberg did a bad job – not at all! He did a great job, given what the task at hand was. The left side that is fuller and bigger is that way because of the scar tissue, etc – it was problematic from the beginning. The right side just settled the way that it did. And he’s trying to fix things, but this is going to be a long time until it’s close to where I envision being able to begin to accept them as being a part of me.

And my hair, oh, my hair. Yes, I’m not bald. But bald was a “cooler” look than what I have going on now. I look like a retarded Little Orphan Annie. Yes, it’s great that I have the curls that I paid (well, my parents paid) for when I was in high school and didn’t quite get. But they don’t go anywhere. They curl in on themselves and don’t grow down. It’s like having a head of ingrown curly hairs. I touch my head and I feel a sheep, not my hair.

So, neither my breasts nor my hair feel like “me.”

I don’t know.

One year later, and I still feel so far away from really recovering, let alone surviving.

For my personal journey, the cancer was the easy part – it was caught before it caused any pain. Yes, I survived the cancer, I suppose. But what I’m really struggling to survive is the surgery, the treatment, the chemo, the after-effects, the recovery, the butchery.