"I decided to just have some fun and just cover the scar with a tattoo instead," Alison Habbal tells PEOPLE
The jewelry designer, 37, underwent a lumpectomy to remove the cancer, and lost her nipple as a result. Rather than undergo a traditional nipple reconstruction, Habbal decided to get an ornate tattoo covering her right breast.
“A reconstruction would have involved another surgery, it is unlikely they would have been able to match my left nipple very well, and it wouldn’t have had the same sensation as a real nipple, so I decided to just have some fun and just cover the scar with a tattoo instead,” Habbal tells PEOPLE. “A nipple reconstruction involves tattooing of the area to give it pigment, so I figured if I was going to get a tattoo it would epic, not a pink circle.”
Habbal knew she wanted a tattoo after she received her diagnosis, and the thought of getting it done actually helped her get through her difficult treatment, which involved three months of chemotherapy and two months of radiotherapy.
“The tattoo was the ‘end game,’ ” says Habbal. “When I was first diagnosed, I was having trouble visualizing surviving the diagnosis despite everything the doctors told me. It was only when I started to think about how I would look in 12 months time, with a short blonde crop and a beautiful tattoo, that I was able to move forward.”
Habbal wanted the tattoo to be bold and be visible on her neckline and shoulder.
“I didn’t see the point in getting a beautiful tattoo only to hide it from everyone under my clothes,” she says.
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She decided to get a colorful and meaningful tattoo, and made an appointment with tattoo artist Makkala Rose to bring her vision to life.
“The bows are a symbol of loyalty – the ties that bind us to those we love,” Habbal explains of the design. “Stars cannot shine without darkness and represent inner strength. Both stars and bows are popular motifs used in jewelry, the industry I work in and I love. Dark pink roses are symbolic of gratitude and appreciation of the gift of life, and orange tulips represent positive energy.”
She also included her daughter’s name as part of the tattoo.
“During a touching conversation with my 7-year-old daughter, Bessie, before the surgery I made a deal with her that I wouldn’t get Elsa [from Frozen] tattooed on my breast, which was her first suggestion, but I would include her name instead – and it’s one of my favorite parts of the tattoo,” says Habbal.
Habbal shared a photo of her finished tattoo on Instagram, and has been surprised by all the positive feedback she has received.
“I’m a designer and very visual person, so I have used Instagram like a diary for a few years now – so naturally I included a photo of the tattoo,” she says. “The reaction has been surprising though – amongst so many similar photos online this one seems to get more likes even when surrounded by stunning inked models and comparable tattoos, and I think that might be the smile – you can see the emotion, my happiness to have this tattoo and be finished my treatment.”
The Sydney, Australia-based designer is grateful for the warm comments and feedback, and hopes she can help other breast cancer survivors learn to love their bodies again.
“As a woman under 40, I’d be happy if the image inspires more women to love their new bodies and own their sexuality again after surviving breast cancer – and not just by getting a tattoo, but by doing what is right for them and rocking it!” she says. “I had long black hair a year ago. Now I have a short blonde crop, and everyone loves it because I have embraced my new look and wear it with confidence and a smile.”