For many, tattoos are a way of remembering loved ones we've lost, identifying who we are or expressing emotions.
But for surgical nurse Sandy Saunier, tattoos are etched on to one's body for a different purpose - they are a symbol of courage and strength in the face of a life-threatening illness and are a way of healing thereafter.
Saunier is one of only two trained areola tattooists in the province who provide a unique service to breast cancer survivors in the Lower Mainland who have undergone reconstructive surgery.
"It's exactly like a tattoo if you went to a tattoo artist," said Saunier. "They're wide awake and talking to me. The only difference is that I put a topical freezing on their skin so they don't feel anything. When you go to a tattoo artist you're cold turkey."
According to Dr. Dao Nguyen, a plastic surgeon at Eagle Ridge Hospital, reconstructive surgery can be done at the time of a woman's mastectomy or after. Nguyen is responsible for creating and attaching the new "mound and nipple."
Once the new breast has healed, patients are sent to Saunier for the final stage of breast reconstruction - areola tattooing.
Saunier, who has been tattooing women for the past two years and has helped 250 women across B.C., is bringing her service to the Tri-Cities.
On June 27, the Eagle Ridge Hospital Foundation received $10,000 of a $20,000 grant from Allergan Medical, a breast reconstruction product company, to establish a tattoo clinic at Eagle Ridge Hospital in Port Moody.
Every Friday, women who have had mastectomies and live in the Fraser Health Authority are able to book a two-hour-long appointment at the hospital for a free consultation and areola tattoo done by Saunier herself.
As the final stage of breast reconstruction, Saunier finds tattooing an integral part of the process, an "icing on the cake" procedure that helps bring closure to breast cancer survivors.
"For years, these ladies have gone for constant doctor appointments and surgeries - it's the only time where the patient lies down - and they all open up to me and get to recapture and tell me what's been going on for the last year or two of their lives," she said. "By the end of the procedure they're mentally and physically done and don't have to think about breast cancer any longer."
She added that none of her patients leave unhappy and are thrilled with the outcome of the procedure.
Nguyen also played an integral role in generating funding for the project and is proud to work in collaboration with Saunier on the treatment that is unique in the Lower Mainland.
"For [Eagle Ridge Hospital] to have a program that is so unique, servicing such a large population, I think it's a big accomplishment for a hospital of its size," she said.
She added that the unique procedure will draw many more patients to the hospital.
"They'll go where Sandy is," said Nguyen.
According to the B.C. Cancer Agency, one in nine women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime.