Tim Cox, a medical tattooist, is on a mission to help as many breast cancer survivors as he can with 3D areola tattoos. Cox's tattoos are designed to look very real, like what was lost.
Theresa Stogsdill and Heather Boyle-Townsend found comfort in tattoos they never thought they would need.
"Needed? I didn't know it even existed!" said Boyle-Townsend.
Taking something back
These two breast cancer survivors, like so many others, endured mastectomies and breast reconstruction. Their surgeries meant removal of the areolas, leaving bare skin behind.
"I couldn't look in the mirror. I didn't want to share it with anybody," said Boyle-Townsend. "I had a husband who was coming home from Afghanistan who hadn't seen me. It was devastating."
With Cox's help, they're taking something back.
"A lot of people say, 'Well it's just two little circles, how much of a difference can that make?' It makes all the difference in the world," he said.
"I feel like I'm back in charge of my life," said Stogsdill.
"This was bringing back the wholeness of feeling like a woman again," said Boyle-Townsend.
Work of art
"It's just like painting," Cox said. "It's all about measuring and deciding where your light source is."
When he put down his paint brush and picked up a tattoo needle years ago, the artist found a new purpose.
The moment survivors see his finished masterpiece is one of pure joy. "It was a complete surprise," said Boyle-Townsend. "It was like Christmas morning."
They share it with loved ones and with a new friend, the man behind the needle who understands their journey more than most.
"He just puts you at ease," said Stogsdill. "He shared his story that he went through with his family and his ex-wife."
Labor of love
Cox said he was already tattooing when the mother of his two girls, Dara, got her breast cancer diagnosis.
"She was a wonderful mother and she's a terrific person," he said.
In his own search for answers, Cox discovered the need for areola tattoos and said he sought medical tattoo training. He hoped to someday help Dara.
"We were talking about this when it had just come around to where she would have been ready was when the cancer came back."
Dara passed away in March 2014.
"It was a horrible experience," Cox said. "But I wouldn't have traded that for never meeting her. That's why I do this."
He does this for Dara, their daughters, and so many more.
Paying for the procedure
Most of Cox's clients get the procedure through insurance, but now he is trying to raise money for the uninsured and underinsured, so more women can feel that peace Stogsdill and Boyle-Townsend do.
So far, his INDIEGOGO campaign has raised more than $1400. Cox said with equipment and anesthetics, tattooing each side usually costs between $300 and $400.
"Now when I look at me, I don't see scars," Stogsdill said.
"You're so proud it's like you really do wanna show!" Boyle-Townsend laughed. "So I've been known to yep – sorry friends and family – but I've been known to at dinner parties!"
From ink, a needle, and an artist's hand, these women say they found a way to feel complete again.
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