"Until that point, I showered in the dark because every time I looked at myself, I started crying."
When asked define her company's aim, New Jersey-based entrepreneur Michelle Kolath-Arbel says: "I do nipples." Since late 2011, the founder and CEO of Pink Perfect, who's in remission from breast cancer, has been manufacturing nipple prosthetics for women who went through what she did. Cancer isn't just an assault on the your body, she says; surgery and chemotherapy often take a toll on the survivor's self-esteem and confidence.
Pink Perfect was her answer to this problem—Kolath-Arbel and her team provide those who have had mastectomies with realistic, custom nipples they can wear as they please. And while "doing nipples" may seem like an unlikely stride in cancer technology and research, the women who wear them get to feel a lot more comfortable in their skin as they heal.
Many people may not realize that breast reconstruction after cancer rarely returns a breast to its normal state. Was that part of the inspiration for founding Pink Perfect?
Yes. When you're in treatment, you're in a war zone. You fight, you have your soldiers with you—then the war ends, but you're wounded. You don't feel like yourself. Suddenly you sit down and you understand what you've been through. For me that was the most vulnerable time. I felt like my life was a snow globe and someone shook it and put it back at the table. I became almost obsessed with returning to the self I was before.
How does losing a breast, or having a partial reconstruction, change your self-image?
The first time I saw myself after the surgery, my surgeon said, "It came out so nice," and "It's beautiful," but I was afraid to even look down. After he left I looked at myself and I just fell on the floor—I fainted. Looking at myself wounded was so painful that my body couldn't even handle it. So in the beginning it was hard.
At what point did you decide to make these prosthetics?
Three months after surgery I went to my plastic surgeon and asked for nipple reconstruction. He said, "I'm sorry your skin is too thin and tight and I cannot do anything." That was a critical day. I ran to the bathroom and just cried. Until that point I showered in the dark because every time I looked at myself, I started crying.
Then I had an idea to go to a do-it-yourself store, get a mold, copy my nipple, and paint it. I didn't know what [I was doing], but I opened a door. Then my husband googled this idea and we found a [nipple prosthetic] company. We ordered one and when it arrived it was hard and it didn't look like my own nipple. That was the point I decided that even if I am my only customer, I have to do this.
When did you think you might have a product for other women here?
I learned everything from scratch. After the first few months I took one set to the Susan Komen walk and gave it to one of my friends who had a double mastectomy and she put them on...In the beginning I thought it would be a hobby or for myself. I didn't think it was my destiny, but when I looked at her, and she felt so sexy, I felt I couldn't give up.
How do the prosthetics work?
I have two kinds of customers: Those who [have had] a one-sided mastectomy. I have to take a mold of their remaining nipple. They get an impression kit sent to their houses, which includes two kinds of silicone they mix together and put on the nipple. It gives me a mold of their nipple, and it's very accurate. They send that back to me with pictures, measurements, skin tone, etc. It takes me a month to make and she gets back to her house four to six nipples with slight variation of color just to get a better chance of 100 percent accuracy.
I also make custom [nipples] for double mastectomy. Some women come to me before the surgery and I can make them a custom pair. Or [women who have already had a] double mastectomy can just buy out of the catalogue: There are eight colors and three styles.
Why do some women opt for a prosthetic nipple over reconstruction of the nipple?
I think that some women order them before the surgery because they're panicked and want to have something right after. Some [order] them just until they do the reconstruction. Some have the reconstruction but it doesn't work because recovery is challenging. Most of them will order right after surgery but I see a range of women, [such as] women who didn't have nipples for twenty years and they suddenly discover it, so it really depends.
I also had a customer whose nipples don't stick out, so they put my nipples on top of their nipples. I have clients who had a breast reduction or augmentation where the nipples were damaged. I have transgender men and women who want nipples as well.
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