Teen Cancer Survivor Speaks Out After Her Chemotherapy Port Scar Was Edited Out of Yearbook Photo

"I felt like my heart just sunk straight to my stomach, because [my port] is so important to me. And it was just erased completely," Allison Hale tells PEOPLE

Allison Hale is a lot of things — a high school student and a cancer survivor, among them — but the one thing she is not? Ashamed of her scars.

So it's no surprise that the 16-year-old Indiana resident was incredibly upset when she recently learned that her yearbook photos had been edited, without her permission, to remove her chemotherapy port scar from her chest.

"When I pulled out the photo, my whole face dropped," she tells PEOPLE. "I felt like my heart just sunk straight to my stomach because [my port] is so important to me, and it was just erased completely."

After addressing the matter with the photographers, Hale says they were quick to fix the image and apologize.

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Allison Hale's edited yearbook photo. allison hale

She is now on a mission to share her story so that others will also embrace their scars, whether they're related to a cancer battle or not.

"Everyone looks different. Everyone has something, and everyone is going to have an opinion of themselves and other people," Hale explains. "You need to stop thinking, 'How do people see me?' and start thinking more of, how do you see you? Once that perspective changes, everything changes."

Hale, who lives near Evansville, says she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2020, right before Christmas. An active student who was involved with music and art at school, Hale was completely destroyed by the news.

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Allison Hale with her chemotherapy port scar. allison hale

"There was a lot happening in my life, outside of my health. I was already in a bad place mentally," she recalls. "Then, to be diagnosed with cancer right before Christmas at 15, it just diminishes every feeling of confidence and worth that you feel."

"Because now, you're sick and sad and feeling all the emotions," she continues. "There was anger, there was fright. I was terrified of what was to come, and lonely, very isolated."

Much of that fear subsided once Hale started treatment at Indianapolis' Riley Children's Hospital in January — an environment that the teen can't help but describe as "warm."

"I met the nurses... and they just made everything seem not as scary," she says. "Of course, it was still scary, but having that support and other kids who are going through the same things around you, it makes all the difference."

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Allison Hale at the beginning of her cancer battle. allison hale

Hale went on to endure five rounds of chemotherapy and 20 sessions of radiation therapy. After the first round of treatment, the teen decided to shave her head, despite once "being terrified of losing my hair."

"Even before I lost my hair, I was like, 'I'm always going to wear a hat. No one's going to see my bald head,' " she recalls. "But as soon as I shaved my hair off, I was totally a brand new person. I didn't want to cover it up."

"That was who I am. That was the picture of what I was going through and how strong I was to be able to show it," she says. "I was immediately so happy to not have that weight on my shoulders and to be able to take control of that."

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Allison Hale during her cancer treatment. allison hale

It was then that Hale vowed to "take control of as much as I could" — including her perspective on her chemotherapy port.

"I wasn't really self-conscious of having the port because that was the access to heal me, to cure me," she says. "That's not something that I want to try to hide because that saved my life."

By July, Hale learned she was cancer-free — a moment she calls "indescribable." The teen then focused on her physical recovery, while also excitedly preparing to return to school in the fall. In mid-August, yearbook photo day finally rolled around.

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Allison Hale ringing the bell to celebrate the end of her cancer treatment. allison hale

"It was an incredibly important day," she explains. "Because at one point you're like, 'Okay, I may never have another birthday again or another yearbook photo.' I was just so ecstatic to have another picture and to be able to show the new person, the stronger Allison, that I had become."

Hale says there was no indication that the company would edit her photo, noting she even checked the option that said to leave her image untouched. Weeks later, she received the shot — and it wasn't long before Hale was on the phone, getting the issue resolved with the company.

"They were so nice and understanding," she says, adding that she can understand why the company may have chosen to edit her photo.

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Allison Hale. Terri Adams, Diamond Photography

"I am a teenage girl in high school. A lot of people edit themselves and filter their pictures. From their standpoint, that might mean something," she explains. "I personally don't edit mine, but I can understand their reasoning since it's considered so normal now."

With the cancer battle behind her, and her sights set on pursuing forensic psychology in college, Hale says the yearbook photo experience has given her a renewed perspective on her scar.

"When I look at my scar now, I feel incredibly empowered, stronger than I ever thought I could be," she says. "I feel like a beautiful person, not even just looking in the mirror, but just thinking about who I am and how I'm trying to better myself."

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And while she knows everyone may not feel that way about their imperfections immediately, Hale has one piece of advice.

"Self-acceptance and self-love look different for everyone," she says. "It's its own journey, truly. When I start to feel down on myself, that's a moment where I remind myself it's okay to feel this way. Everyone feels this way at some point or another."

"Feel those feelings," she adds. "And once you see it through, your world's going to change and it's going to change for the better."

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