Mastectomy tattoos bond breast cancer survivors

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Roberta Zalenko loves strolling through Carytown. There are plenty of opportunities for window shopping and people watching, and it is truly where she got her confidence back.

“When I saw them I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing,'” she remembers how she felt when she first saw her mastectomy tattoos, the final step in her breast cancer journey.

On this February morning, she is getting a tattoo touchup, one of a few she has had since first coming to Amy Black’s studio in 2014.

“I find that this work is really critical for a lot of people,” explains Black, who has been a tattoo artist in Carytown since 2000.

It was a phone call five years ago that helped Black find her calling.  A breast cancer survivor reached out, asking Black to ink on her areola and nipple after reconstructive surgery.

“I was really really honored and overjoyed just to do the one, and that blossomed into what you see today,” Black said gesturing to her studio, where the walls are lined with momentos and examples of her breast cancer work.

Social media support groups are pointing patients from all over the country and world in Black’s direction. It has also become a word-of-mouth business that bonds survivors.

“That’s how I found Amy, it was a show and tell,” Zalenko describes how a customer at the Glen Allen clothing store where she works first shared hers.

Zalenko booked an appointment with Black eight rounds of chemo, three breast surgeries and two years post-diagnosis.

Black has lost count of how many mastectomy tattoos she has done. “It’s probably in the thousands by now,” she estimates.

The tattoos cost $250 a breast, but they are priceless to the women who feel whole again. The most common ones are 3D nipple and areola tattoos, but Black is also now getting more requests for intricate designs.

Adds Black, “It’s great to know that they feel good about themselves again and that they’re really happy and proud to show off this beautiful art that is helping them put an end to their cancer treatments.”

That is how it has been for Zalenko, who now volunteers with patients at VCU Massey Cancer Center, where she went for treatment. “I wish I could wear a GoPro when I show people my tattoos because the look on their face is like, “Okay, I can be well again.”

Black also helped Zalenko design a tattoo to cover her chemo port scar, which is an area where Black is seeing more business.

Zalenko wears her tattoos and her survivor status as a badge of honor with courage and humor. “I’m still here, and you know I’m perky,” Zalenko chuckles. “You can’t always say that at my age.”

Black started the Pink Ink Fund in 2011 to help women pay for their mastectomy tattoos. She is about to award her third grant.

See examples of these unique tattoos by following this link.

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