Marnie Rustemeyer helps breast cancer survivors regain self-confidence through medical tattooing.
A mastectomy is more than a medical procedure. It’s a watershed moment in a woman’s life. Marnie Rustemeyer, a Charleston native who was diagnosed with a breast cancer gene mutation and had a bilateral mastectomy in 2013, knows that as well as anyone. “I understand how it feels to have that loss of confidence and self-esteem and the desire to feel whole again,” she says.
Not long after her own mastectomy, Rustemeyer began looking for ways to help other women who have gone through the procedure. She invented the Billow when she couldn’t find a pillow that could adequately provide comfort while she was healing. The product debuted in 2014 and has since sold to women all over the world.
But as she worked with breast cancer support groups, Rustemeyer came to realize there was more she could do. Reconstructive surgeries can help a mastectomy patient regain her pre-cancer silhouette, but the surgeries do not leave her with a natural-looking areola and nipple—details that can deeply affect a woman’s body image. And while some doctors offer medical tattooing for these women, they often do not have the training to create lifelike recreations. “It was a piece of their road to recovery that was missing,” she says.
That’s why Rustemeyer spent hundreds of hours training to become a certified medical tattooist and, in February, launched her new business, Medi Ink. The Charleston-based clinic provides permanent cosmetic and scar therapy services, but the cornerstone of Rustemeyer’s practice is creating realistic-looking nipples and areolas for women who have had reconstructive surgery.
It’s a delicate process, since scar tissue does not behave the same way unaffected skin does under a tattoo needle. “You have to know how to recognize the scar tissue and adjust your needle depth and account for pigmentation,” she says. Skin that has been exposed to radiation also presents a challenge. “Their skin can turn a grey tone, so you have to modify your pigments.”
Before scheduling a tattoo session, Rustemeyer has consultations with patients to ensure they are ready for the procedure. If scars are too fresh, tattooing could cause more damage to the tissue. Patients have to be emotionally prepared, too. “They have to be ready to move forward,” she says. “It means they have accepted their new body.”
Rustemeyer recently spent two sessions tattooing a 24-year-old breast cancer survivor. “It was a challenge. She had some serious scarring and hyperpigmentation,” she says. “Afterward she was just so grateful and happy. She was amazed at what I did and how she looked, and ready to start her new life and move forward.”
Medi Ink sessions often end in tears—but they’re tears of joy, not pain. And it’s not just the patients who get misty. “It’s really great to be able to help them heal,” Rustemeyer says.
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