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Ipswich: Giving women their lives back after mastectomy

13:22 12 March 2014

Kim Collingridge(l) and Julie Calcluth with their patient Jo Whitelaw.

Kim Collingridge(l) and Julie Calcluth with their patient Jo Whitelaw.

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When women look in the mirror and see what Julie and Kim have done to them they usually start crying tears of joy and disbelief at being given back something that cancer took away.

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Kim Collingridge and Julie Calcluth are breast care nurse specialists at Ipswich Hospital who have spent the past 10 years tattooing new nipples on women who have had breast reconstruction.

By now you would think they would be used to the reaction but clearly from their smiles they love the affect their work has. Around 230 women and three men from their 20s to 80s have come to the end of their cancer journey over the past decade and been overwhelmingly grateful to the two Ipswich Hospital nurses.

Kim explained that in 2003 a consultant surgeon told them about the new tattooing technique using natural pigments being used in America and how it would complete the breast reconstruction process.

They explored the idea, were impressed at what they saw and went on an intensive course to learn how to do it.

Under supervision they learned how to create the 3D effect of a real nipple before writing a business case for the hospital and getting the go ahead, making them one of the first in the country to offer the service.

They proudly show a scrapbook going back to their first tattoos back in July 2004.

“It was exciting to think that we could do this,” said Kim. “Exciting and scary because you can’t rub it out.”

Julie said the best reaction they had was when a consultant came back to them after seeing a patient for a follow up consultation and said “I didn’t know what side it was”.

“That was the best compliment,” grinned Julie.

For Jo Whitelaw, ending up in the skilled hands of Kim and Julie is the end of a two-year journey from when she was diagnosed with breast cancer through the surgery, chemotherapy and reconstruction including using scar tissue to create a false nipple.

Most women arrive with a blank breast mound and that means they are conscious that something is missing when changing for swimming or the gym, or just seeing themselves in the mirror.

“It doesn’t have any identity as a breast,” explained Kim. “We recreate a nipple as close as possible to what it looked like so we give women their self-esteem and their power back.

Julie added: “Its about their recovery and being normal.”

Jo had already put on the anaesthetic gel to numb the area before the tattooing.

Like many others she already knew Julie and Kim from almost the point of diagnosis. Women from all over Suffolk are referred to the monthly clinic and although they may step into the room a little apprehensive, they step out with a smile on their face.

First the nurses measure the other nipple with a gauge and mark the blank side so they create one the same size. The nurses spend a long time mixing pigment colours to make sure they will get the exact match with the other nipple. If someone has two blank breasts they work from eye colouring and skin tone to give clues as to what the colour will be.

The whole visit usually takes around an hour with a second visit a month later when the colour and skin has calmed down so that it can be checked and further enhanced if necessary.

Once the pigment colour is mixed, the tattoo needle gets going painting it on with the needle moving 140 times a second so there is a seamless flow of colour. Kim stops the needle regularly and steps back with Julie to check the shape and the shading are right to look as realistic as possible.

This is where their skill and expertise comes in, they are experts in what the effect should look like .

“One of our patients wrote a testimonial saying we are very artistic and she called us artists saying how different the tattoo made her feel and she did not expect that,” Kim said.

When Julie and Kim are satisfied with the result, they explain to Jo that the colour will settle down in a few days before letting her stand in front of the mirror and see her new nipple.

Jo is visibly shocked and delighted. “That’s amazing. I can’t believe it, it’s like I’ve not lost my boob,” she is smiling from ear to ear and adds: “It’s the end of a long journey that’s lasted two years,” thanking both Julie and Kim for their work.

As she leaves the clinic with her husband she is happily talking about parties and going topless on the beach.

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