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Peachland breast cancer survivor beautifies mastectomy scars, finds closure

Amberlee Ficociello has learned to love her body again thanks to tattoos to cover her mastectomy scars.
Amberlee Ficociello has learned to love her body again thanks to tattoos to cover her mastectomy scars.

Almost a decade ago, a Peachland resident, wife and mother of two was in a doctor’s office receiving a life-altering, devastating diagnosis.

Amberlee Ficociello, 43 years old at the time, had breast cancer.

“I left the office, sat down in the waiting room and had a meltdown, shaking,” she said. “You think you can manage but I didn’t. I had a full day of crying. It was that 'holy smokes' moment.”

Several surgeries, treatments and eventually a double mastectomy left Ficociello with so many scars on her chest she “couldn’t look in the mirror.”

“After the mastectomy, the scars were as big a deal as the diagnosis,” she said. “It was shocking. I hid my chest from my husband and wore T-shirts to bed because I was so self-conscious.”

Approaching the ten year mark since her diagnosis, Ficociello wants to share how she found emotional closure with body art, and give hope to other women going through similar challenges that looking and feeling beautiful again is possible.

“I’m a huge advocate for other women going through this,” she said. “I showed other women my scars, it’s time to show the world my tattoos I think.”

Ficociello chose to have her breasts removed after undergoing chemotherapy and working through a long schedule of radiation treatments. She met a woman at a breast cancer support group in Kelowna.

“A lady six weeks ahead of me in treatments discovered another lump in her other breast and panic washed over me,” she said. “Will I be doing this for the rest of my life, wondering if there is another one, if its back?”

After the mastectomy, Ficociello opted for breast reconstruction, another long and difficult process that left her with more scarring and further impacted her self-esteem. 

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Radiation destroys the strength and elasticity of skin, so she first underwent a surgery to move muscle and skin tissue from her back to her chest, to give her skin enough strength for implants. It left her with fourteen inch scars on her back.

After healing from that operation, Ficociello had tissue expanders embedded to slowly stretch the area for implants.

“They were big, hard and lumpy and I was self-conscious about hugging people.”

Ficociello’s implants are several sizes smaller than the natural breasts she had, but bigger boobs would mean more stress on her skin. It was another drastic change in her appearance.

“I went home with a different perspective that day, that smaller is going to be better long-term, but it was still a bit of a shock and it took time to get used to,” she said. “I was a young woman with big boobs, it’s an attractive thing for women. I hated it, I crumpled looking at the implants and lost part of my confidence as a woman.”

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Even after she healed from the breast reconstruction, Ficociello couldn’t get past the severe scarring. She kept attending the breast cancer support group and started showing other women the results of her many surgeries, about 60 inches of scars in total.

“It’s always great to show other women what it looks like,” she said. “I wanted to help people prepare for the scars. They were such a shock to me.”

She said at that time 3D nipple tattooing was becoming available but there were only two colours and nurses were being trained to do the job, which often gave unrealistic results. At that time realistic nipple tattoos were being developed and tattoo artists were starting to do training to make realistic looking ones.

Ficociello went to the plastic surgeon to have nipples made and have 3D nipple tattoos put on. The surgeon cut rectangles of skin and pulled them together to make lumps for future nipples. But Ficociello was allergic to the Polysporin prescribed to put on them and by the time the allergy was discovered the lumps had turned black and fallen off leaving her with more scars, and more healing to do.

“I was so discouraged at that stage I literally wouldn’t take my shirt off, I had such a mental hang-up with all the scars,” she said.

It wasn’t until she found body art four years ago that she was able to reconnect with and love her body again.

She found Tania Hennigar, a tattoo artist in Kamloops where her sister was living, who was training to help support women with scars. Hennigar, who is now battling ALS, was doing medical tattoos for mastectomy scars and areola restoration.

“I found purpose helping ladies regain their esteem, sense of beauty and femininity through transforming what some ladies described as hideous scars into beautiful pieces of art,” Hennigar said. “Never in my career have I felt a sense of fulfillment as I did when the ladies looked in the mirror for the first time after the tattoo was finished.”

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Hennigar said plastic surgeons were attempting to do the tattoos on their own leaving many women with poorly done areola tattoos not in alignment, or not the right colour or size.

“I’ve seen ladies have to get the surgery redone over and over because what they are left with barely resembles a breast at all,” she said. “I truly feel for these women and their strength is amazing.”

Hennigar was giving away boudoir-style chest tattoos in the shape of a bra that covered major scars. Ficociello fell in love with it and two weeks later she was getting tattooed. She now shows the tattoos to other women with mastectomies as a possibility to consider. 

“I’ve had the tattoos for over four years and they changed my life,” she said. “They are beautiful, Tania’s work is incredible. I’ve embraced my body and now I wish I could go topless on a beach.” 

To contact a reporter for this story, email Shannon Ainslie or call 250-819-6089 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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