Nicole was only 23 when she had a double mastectomy following a breast cancer diagnosis. After she recovered, Nicole got a chest tattoo that symbolizes how she wants to live life after cancer.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Our bodies change over our lifetimes. Those changes can be dramatic and unsettling after an illness. NPR's Rebecca Davis introduces us to a woman whose cancer diagnosis forced her to think differently about her body and how she could feel whole again.
REBECCA DAVIS, BYLINE: It's just a few minutes before 1 o'clock when the door to Lisa Doll's studio swings open.
LISA DOLL: Hey. What's up?
NICOLE HITE: Hi (laughter).
DAVIS: And in walks her next appointment. It's a young woman and her boyfriend.
HITE: Hello, how are you?
DOLL: How are you guys doing?
HITE: Good, nervous (laughter).
DAVIS: Nicole Hite (ph) is 25. And she's nervous because she's about to do something she's never done before - get a tattoo. And it's going to be a big tattoo that will cover much of her chest. Artist Lisa Doll goes over the final drawing.
DOLL: This is - be kind of the basic of the design. And what I'll do is I'll put it on and then...
DAVIS: Lisa takes the couple to a private room. It's an inviting space, tastefully decorated. Nicole takes off her shirt and lies down on a reclining chair.
DOLL: All right, so we're just going to start in, like, a small, little line. Do you feel that?
HITE: Don't really feel anything but your pressure from your hand.
DAVIS: You wouldn't know it at first glance, but Nicole Hite has had a double mastectomy. And if you look closer, you'll see the scars and the fact that her breasts are smooth. There's no nipples.
DOLL: Do you feel that you have - that you're more sensitive or less sensitive due to the surgery?
HITE: Less sensitive. I've lost a lot of my nerve sensation.
DAVIS: Getting this tattoo, Nicole says, is the final chapter in a story that started three years ago. That's when Nicole noticed some worrying changes in her breast. Her doctor ordered a biopsy. And then late one afternoon, she got a phone call from the radiologist telling her she had cancer in one breast - a very early stage but cancer nonetheless.
HITE: And he said, I know this sucks, but it is what it is. And obviously I was shocked. And I started crying because how the hell do you call me on the phone and tell me I have cancer? Like, in the TV shows, they call you in for an appointment, and they break the news in person. And it all happened on the phone within five minutes.
DAVIS: The news was all the more shocking because Nicole was only 22 at the time. She had no family history of cancer. Yet the cancer had spread throughout the breast.
HITE: And so to them, because it was so expansive in my mammary glands, they needed to do a mastectomy.
DAVIS: Nicole started thinking long and hard about the idea of having a breast removed and then reconstructed. And the thing she kept worrying about was the idea that her breasts would be so different from each other. They would be asymmetrical.
HITE: It's weird. It's kind of - I don't know how to explain it. Society has set women up to live by certain beauty standards. And so in my head, being a uni-boob (ph) - having one boob scared me (laughter).
DAVIS: Nicole's solution - to have both breasts removed and both breasts reconstructed. She says that way her body would look and feel more natural to her, except for her nipples. Those could not be salvaged.
HITE: I remember when I first saw my chest without the bandages after my mastectomy, I cried. And I didn't cry because I didn't have boobs. I cried because I didn't have nipples. It was heartbreaking because I at least wanted those. There's so much that goes into that - sexuality, just looking normal.
DAVIS: Now, Nicole could have chosen nipple reconstruction, but she'd heard the new nipples don't look very realistic. And then she noticed that some women were replacing their nipples with what's called a restorative tattoo. Artist Lisa Doll says this kind of tattoo makes use of a classic painting technique called trompe l'oeil, which is French for optical illusion.
DOLL: Meaning using light and shadow to create a 3-D image where there is no 3-D image - so a flat surface.
DAVIS: So that flat surface at least looks like a three-dimensional nipple. Now, Doll says some cancer survivors take the tattooing even further and go for an elaborate design that covers scars and fills in the chest with something new and meaningful.
DOLL: It's physically scrapbooking that moment in time. So cancer took something away from them, put a mark on their body. But they're leaving that lasting mark.
DAVIS: And that's what Nicole Hite decided she wanted not the illusion of a nipple but a statement and big enough to mask the thing that was bothering her the most - her scars.
HITE: Because I would look down and be sad about my scars.
DAVIS: Nicole imagined a dramatic, symbolic work. She pictured objects coming apart into the pieces of a puzzle and then coming back together again.
HITE: You always hear about people breaking down and shattering into pieces and then picking themselves back up. I feel like I had done that.
DAVIS: And she wanted a pocket watch tattooed over one breast because...
HITE: Time was a huge part of my recovery not just physically but emotionally and mentally.
DAVIS: Nicole took her design ideas to Lisa Doll. She sketched it out, and Nicole was thrilled. But as the months passed, Nicole noticed she was changing, that she wasn't as sad as before, that time, just like that pocket watch indicated, was working its magic. And the tattoo she was so convinced she wanted - well, that is not the tattoo she's getting inked on her chest today.
DOLL: You're almost done. We are finishing up her left breast.
HITE: It feels like a bee sting.
DAVIS: Lisa Doll has been working on Nicole for about three hours. And then, finally, she's finished.
DOLL: OK. Go ahead and check it out.
HITE: Woohoo (ph).
DAVIS: Nicole gets up and goes to a mirror. She's slim. Her long, dark hair is held back by a headband. She stands up very straight and studies the fresh tattoo.
HITE: I love it. I absolutely love it.
DAVIS: Nicole thought she wanted a tattoo to cover her scars, to cover the sadness she felt when she saw them. But the image she sees in the mirror reveals something else - that Nicole Hite has made peace with this body. So instead of a big, expansive tattoo, her smooth breasts are adorned with a weeding branch of cherry blossoms and pinks and reds.
HITE: It's elegant and delicate, and it doesn't cover too much of my scar tissue. I don't think my scar is anything to be ashamed of - perfect.
DAVIS: Rebecca Davis, NPR News.
HITE: Yay. Thank you so much.
DOLL: No problem.
HITE: I'm very happy with this.
DOLL: I like it a lot.
(SOUNDBITE OF LORD HURON SONG, "FOOL FOR LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.