DALLAS — Editor’s note: This story includes some graphic images, but we feel they are necessary to help viewers understand the reality of how breast cancer can ravage a patient’s body and how it feels to be, at least somewhat, restored.
Set aside any stereotype you have about tattoo parlors. Inside the Electric Eye in Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood, serious comebacks happen.
“Were you nervous when you came in here?” Marie Sena asked, as she worked on client Mindy Button.
“I was nervous and excited,” Button replied.
Sena and her husband own the Electric Eye. They do all kinds of tattoos, but Sena’s specialty is restorative medical tattooing.
“You might feel a little bit of pressure, but it’s not going to be painful,” Sena told Button.
The two chatted like old friends even though they were perfect strangers.They were brought together by Button’s painful experience and Sena’s deep expertise and notable empathy.
“I don’t know a single person that hasn’t been touched by breast cancer in some way. My grandma had it,” Sena said. “I feel a great big responsibility to really do right by these women.”
Button fought breast cancer in 2012. Surgery, treatment and reconstruction ravaged her breasts, as they do most cancer patients.
Scars replaced her nipples and areolas - the pigmented rings surrounding the nipples.Cancer left her most feminine parts feeling like foreign objects.
“It’s a lot. A lot,” Button said. “It affects our ego, what goes through our heads. You try to be upbeat. I’ve been this way since 2012 and I thought I was happy. But there was a void.”
“A lot of my clients will describe their reconstructed breasts as sort of like a face without features,” Sena said.
The 3-D nipple and areola tattoos that Marie carefully crafts make reconstructed breasts look natural again. She is the final step on a survivor’s long journey.
“Every time I work on a new project I try to look at factors like the shape of a client’s breast, their frame, their size, complexion – even hair and eye color – all those little nuances that make an areola color,” Sena said.
Sena earned a master’s degree in medical illustration, giving her a remarkable depth of knowledge about human anatomy.
When she isn’t tattooing, she can often be found in a loft above the parlor drawing illustrations for medical textbooks that will be used to educate doctors.
Up in the loft, where her clients can’t hear her, she does admit that she demands perfection from herself when tattooing.
“I can’t mess up, Sena said. “There’s a lot of – not a lot of pressure — but a lot of responsibility."
“It can get really heavy. Sometimes you hear stories that just break your heart. There are definitely tears and sometimes I come home, and I’ll just be drained. But, it’s all counterbalanced with the fact that when they left they were smiling.”
As Button’s session wrapped up, she was definitely smiling, but she was crying, too. “Let me wipe a tear,” Button said with a laugh as the tattooing ended.
“I mean what you do has finalized my journey with this and,” she paused to wipe another tear. “This makes me feel more of a woman again.”
“You have a gift,” Button told Sena. “This is your calling.” Perhaps Sena's greatest gift is that her art heals.
“It’s the whole reason why I do this,” Sena said. “It means so much to use my artwork to help somebody in a critical time in their life. It’s something I’ve never felt before and it’s definitely what I’m supposed to do.”
Button walked to a mirror and the tears were replaced by smiles and laughter as she looked at the finished product.
“Oh my gosh, they look awesome! I love ‘em! Great job!” she said to Sena.
She turned and looked at the mirror one more time. “I’m back, I’m back. The old Mindy’s back.”