Meet the Breast Cancer Survivor Who Crafts Custom Nipples to Help Women After a Mastectomy
Michelle Kolath-Arbel survived breast cancer and went on to launch Pink Perfect, a company that creates adhesive silicone nipple prostheses for breast cancer patients recovering from surgery.
I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 2010 at age 33. My son was 4, and my husband and I had started thinking about having another baby. We tried and tried, but I didn't conceive. I went to see my doctor, who ended up prescribing me hormones after running several checks and tests. I asked another doctor why I had to do all those tests, and she said sometimes doctors don't want to give hormones to women who might have any small tumors growing in their bodies so the tumors don't become monsters. I remember she specifically said monster—something about it made me remember, somewhere in my subconscious, that I had a small bump in my breast. My doctor had checked it nine months earlier and said it was nothing, but this new doctor wanted me to have it checked again as soon as possible.
That was a Sunday morning, and by the next Sunday morning I was having a mammogram and a biopsy. The woman who did the biopsy told me it didn't look good, but I remember thinking it was either a bad dream or they had made a mistake. I was healthy, I ate nutritiously, I didn't smoke, I didn't have any cancer in my family. I thought, "No way!"
But it wasn't a mistake—turns out, I had cancer. I went through chemotherapy and hormone treatment, and after a year of those treatments, which were meant to shrink the tumor, I still needed a single mastectomy. I had reconstructive surgery with an implant too. I was bald from chemo, I was covered in scars, and I only had one nipple. I couldn't look at myself. For the first three months after my mastectomy, I showered in the dark, because I would end up crying if I saw myself. I hated trying on bathing suits or buying a new bra. It was so obvious to me that one nipple was happy, that I had one breast that was still mine, and on the other side, a reconstructed breast, but no nipple.
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I became so obsessed with this missing part of me that I had to fix it. I wanted to feel complete again and not have this reminder 100 times a day that I don't have a nipple. I saw a doctor about having nipple reconstruction surgery. The doctor can make a nipple out of your skin, and then you can have the areola tattooed on. The surgeon told me my skin was still too sensitive after treatment. I would have to wait at least another two years.
That was way, way too long for me to wait. I remember going back to our house after that appointment and going to sleep, then waking up after an hour in a crazy-inspired mood. I told my husband I was going to the store to get supplies to make a mold to make myself a nipple. He joked that I must have been taking medical marijuana to come up with this idea. After I calmed down a little, we did some research online. While there are prostheses for many other human organs, there wasn't a good solution for nipples. I guess nobody thought it was that important!
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I thought it was important, so I learned how to make one myself. I went back to school to learn medical art from professionals. I was a marketing director at an advertising company; I thought I'd make nipples in the evenings as a hobby. Even if I was my only customer, I was going to do it. But after two months, it became clear there were other women like me who couldn't reconstruct their own nipples or didn't want another surgery who could use my product, so I started selling them, and my company Pink Perfect was born. It started as a small company here in Israel where I live, and then I opened in the U.S. as well.
My prostheses are ready-made ($280 for two) or custom-made ($410-$480 for two) silicone nipples, and they come in eight different color variations. They're waterproof, so women can swim and shower with them on. They feel like real skin, and they stick on with a medical adhesive, typically for about a week before you need to reapply. With proper care, they can last for years. I have sold over 1,000, and I still make them all myself. I'm a fanatic about it. As long as I can, I'll keep doing this, it's that important to me. Yes, it's a business, but even if women don't buy anything from me, I want them to know they have an option that doesn't require more surgery.
I wanted to put cancer behind me, but I ended up putting cancer in front of me. If somebody would have told me I was going to make nipples as my job, I would have thought they were crazy, but this is what life brought me. The first time I made a pair for a friend, who had had a double mastectomy, she cried and said, "I have breasts again!" I couldn't give up on that.
Husbands have called me to thank me. One told me his wife hadn't shown him her breasts for three years. "I bought her those nipples and she put them on, and I saw her for the first time after reconstruction," he told me. "You saved my marriage." I had a grandmother who told me she had a long-standing ritual of taking a jacuzzi soak with her grandchildren, and after breast cancer she no longer felt comfortable doing so, until she tried my nipples. I think in a way I can help make women healthier if I can make them feel sexy and happy and feminine again. With everything I've been through, it's a privilege to help other women.