The Road Trip That Helped Me Beat Breast Cancer

washington monument
washington monument

Me and my newly tattooed nipples taking a selfie near the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. (Photo: Caitlin M. Kiernan)

When you hear people say they are going on “the trip of a lifetime,” it brings to mind exotic or expensive destinations. Places like the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, natural wonders of the world like the aurora borealis in Alaska, or the Cook Islands, which sit at the end of the earth (actually, in the middle of the Pacific, but you know what I mean).

Last March, I took the trip of a lifetime. The destination: Finksburg, Md. (yeah, you read that right, Finksburg). And although it wasn’t to a remote corner of the world or a luxurious sun-drenched beach, it was nonetheless a life-changing experience. My trip was actually part of my journey back from cancer.

Two and a half years ago, in spring 2012, I discovered a lump in my right breast. After two mammograms failed to reveal anything (this is often the case with dense breasts), a sonogram revealed a one-centimeter tumor. A biopsy confirmed that it was malignant.

In that moment, my life changed forever.

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breast cancer ribbon
breast cancer ribbon

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. (Photo: Thinkstock)

The tumor, located in my right breast, was stage 1, well differentiated, and HER-positive. Considering the possibilities, it was the best of bad news. Over the course of the next year and a half, I had chemo and five surgeries — three of which were part of my double mastectomy.

But surgeries aren’t the end of reconstruction. The last procedure is the nipple tattoos — permanent pigment that creates the look of areolas. While this is the most minor of all the procedures, it is the one that gave me the most anxiety. I had done a lot of research and was concerned (freaked out is more like it) by the one-dimensional discs that were being passed off as “nipples.” In my opinion, they looked more like pepperoni slices — too red and too round. And in most cases, they ruined the aesthetic of some very good reconstructions. I knew there had to be a better alternative. And I was going to find it.

After a ton of research, I found Vinnie Myers, a tattoo artist in Finksburg, Md., who specializes in 3D nipple tattoos. In breast cancer circles, Myers is known as “the Michelangelo of nipple tattoos” because his renderings are so realistic. The natural hues and dimension he inks require close inspection to tell the real from the fake. To date, more than 5,000 people have traveled from locations across the globe to get “Vinnies.” I knew I had to be one of them.

After booking my appointment (the earliest opening was four months down the road), I recruited one of my girlfriends, Leah Ginsberg, to road-trip it with me down to Finksburg. It would be an epic moment, and I wanted to make it a celebration. Afterward, we would spend a fun night in nearby Washington, D.C. It’s one of my favorite cities, and symbols of strength and courage are everywhere.

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road trip at burger king
road trip at burger king

A road trip just isn’t a road trip without a Burger King crown. (Photo: Leah Ginsberg)

On March 28, we hopped in the car at 5:30 a.m. — hours before even Dunkin’ Donuts opened — and started out on what we affectionately began calling “The Tit Trip.” We drove through New Jersey into Delaware. With our bellies growling and my SUV low on gas, we made a pit stop to fuel up. Conveniently, there was a Burger King nearby. No road trip is complete without some fast food, and I wanted this road trip to be exactly like the ones I had taken back in college: playful and freeing (and yes, giving me the perfect excuse to ditch my diet — guilt-free — for a few days).

I ordered a burger, onion rings, and an orange soda for breakfast. I scarfed it down wearing a gold paper crown on my head. I was Queen of the World! Leah opted for a less deep-fried sandwich from Starbucks. (Secretly, I think she wished she had ordered BK.)

We laughed and talked as we gobbled down our food and then hopped back in the car. And every time I looked at Leah, I was reminded of what amazing friends I have and how they have stood by me during one of the most difficult times in my life. This trip, and the cancer that led to it, signified a greater journey in my life. Traveling this road changed who I was and where I wanted to go in my life. And having my friend supporting me from the passenger seat just really brought that home.

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Back on the road, we snaked our way from one town to the next with Siri guiding us along the way. We pulled into the parking lot of Little Vinnies Tattoos in Finksburg at 10:30 a.m.

tattoo shop
tattoo shop

Little Vinnie’s is unassuming, but Myers changes people’s lives. (Photo: Google)


Survivors who come to Vinnie’s each stick a pin in this map to show where they traveled from. Women come from all over the world. (Photo: Vinnie Myers)

Once in the shop, I completed a bunch of paperwork and was led to a small room containing antique Asian and Indian masks, shark jaws, Vinnie’s artwork, and a soft black leather couch and matching chair. It was unlike any other tattoo parlor I’ve been in. It felt homey yet provided plenty of distractions and conversation starters. When Myers finally came into the room, he was nothing like the leather-wearing, Harley-riding tattoo artist I was expecting. His tall, lean frame was decked out in a navy porkpie hat, fitted houndstooth vest, tailored jeans, and navy-and-cognac-hued wingtips. Even his colorful polka-dot socks were adorably dapper. His attention to detail gave me a sense of relief.

getting nipples tattooed
getting nipples tattooed

Myers is the breast artist ever. Done with the right, on to the left. (Photo: Leah Ginsberg)

Myers quickly got to work mixing an array of colors to create a custom hue that would complement my skin. Less than 20 minutes after the machine began to buzz, my tattoos were done. I looked in the mirror and was amazed by how real my new nipples appeared. I am a perfectionist who was ecstatic. I was also relieved that in that moment, all the chemo, surgeries, and daily doctor’s appointments were finished. After two years, my battle, this leg of my journey, was finally over. I was beyond ready to celebrate.

world war 2 memorial
world war 2 memorial

Finally in D.C. The World War II Memorial at sunset. (Photo: Caitlin M. Kiernan)

We bid goodbye to Vinnie at 2:30 p.m., hopped back in the car, and headed to the capital. Less than an hour later, we arrived at our hotel in D.C. and dropped off our bags. I was exhausted mentally and physically, but also inspired to have a memorable night. We went out on the town: After a delicious Mexican dinner (with a few margaritas), we made a beeline for the National Mall. With the sun setting, we were treated to a side of Washington that most people don’t get to see — the monuments by moonlight. My favorite was the Korean War Veterans Memorial — eerie larger-than-life sculptures of soldiers walking through the tree-lined landscape. We walked the Mall taking in all the historical monuments, and when the sun finally set and a chill hung in the air, we flagged a cab that whisked us back to the hotel. The following morning, we did some shopping in Georgetown — it was nice to think of something besides cancer. With Siri’s help, we cruised to the highway and drove back to NYC.

Like most breast cancer patients, I had never really thought about what the end of this medical marathon would be like. I certainly didn’t think it would take me to Finksburg, Md. (Finksburg!) But I realized how significant the nipple tattoos — the final phase of my reconstruction — and the trip to get them were. When I set off for Maryland, I left as a breast cancer patient. When I came back to New York, I arrived a breast cancer survivor — one heading into a happier, healthier chapter of my life. The trip of a lifetime? You bet it was.

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