When treating breast cancer with a mastectomy, the nipple is typically removed along with the rest of the breast. (Some women might be able to have a nipple-sparing mastectomy, where the nipple is left in place. This is discussed in more detail on our page about mastectomy.)
If you’re having breast reconstruction after your mastectomy, you can decide if you want to have the nipple and the dark area around the nipple (areola) reconstructed through surgery or tattooing, or both.
The nipple and areola are usually the final phase of breast reconstruction. This is a separate surgery done to make the reconstructed breast look more like the original breast. It can be done as an outpatient surgery or sometimes as an office procedure. It’s usually done about 3 to 4 months after surgery after the new breast has had time to heal.
Ideally, nipple and areola reconstruction tries to match the position, size, shape, texture, color, and projection of the new nipple to the natural one (or to each other, if both nipples are being reconstructed). Tissue used to rebuild the nipple and areola comes from the newly created breast or, less often, from skin from another part of your body (such as the inner thigh). If a woman wants to match the color of the nipple and areola of the other breast, tattooing may be done a few months after the surgery.
Some women opt to have just the tattoo, without nipple and areola tissue reconstruction. A skilled plastic surgeon or other professional may be able to use pigment in shades that make the flat tattoo look 3-dimensional.
Another option for women who might not want further surgery or tattooing are nipple prosthetics, which are made of silicone or other materials and look and feel like real nipples. They can be attached to the chest and then taken off when you choose.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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Last Revised: October 20, 2021
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