How cancer made this woman’s breast Instagram famous

Alison Habbal's breast tattoo post-lumpectomy Image copyright Alison Habbal

During her year of breast cancer, Alison Habbal occupied hours of nausea and exhaustion by planning for her post-sickness rebirth.

Just 36 years old when the cancer struck, Alison, from Sydney, knew that, along with a good portion of her hair, she would lose her nipple and suffer extensive breast scarring in a lumpectomy.

But the idea of recreating a nipple through plastic surgery didn't appeal to her.

"I didn't want a fake nipple made from some other piece of flesh. I thought I'm just going to get a tattoo," she says.

"During the year I was sick I had the idea of me with the blonde crop and the tattoo. The whole time I was sick I would trawl tattoo artists over the internet," she says.

After extensive deliberation, she settled on a New Zealand-based artist named Makkala Rose, a 24-year-old with a bold and colourful illustrative style.

Image copyright Alison Habbal
Image caption New Zealand-based artist Makkala Rose created the bold, floral design

The tattoo was applied in Melbourne during a gruelling 13-hour session on 1 July this year. Alison, happy with the result, posted a photo of her design to Instagram and Facebook.

'Where the nipple at?'

It would be an overstatement to say that the picture "went viral" - it's not a meme like grumpy cat or doge - but something about it is making people respond.

To date more than 23,000 people have liked Alison's Instagram photo, which has been reposted on multiple tattoo-focused Instagram accounts.

Comments are overwhelmingly positive and when someone - usually a man - pipes up to ask where Alison's nipple is, complete strangers step in to let them know the full story behind the tattoo.

"Because there's no nipple, I can blast it everywhere all over Facebook and Instagram, and they can't censor it, which I think is really funny," Alison says.

Image copyright Alison Habbal
Image caption Alison's original post has been reblogged multiple times and accrued tens of thousands of likes on Instagram

Post-mastectomy and lumpectomy tattoos have been gaining popularity in recent years. Although women of all ages are choosing tattoos over breast reconstructions, they are particularly popular among younger women.

But something about Alison's tattoo is generating more reaction than many other post-mastectomy tattoos. She thinks it's a combination of the tattoo's execution and the fact that she's smiling in the photo, adding a layer or emotion missing from breast-only shots.

"There are pages of collections, but mine tends to get more likes. Even on the one that went up yesterday, the page is full of hot models, and even to be on that page is an honour," she says.


Makkala Rose, the Hamilton-based tattooist, said Alison was an "absolute champion" for sitting through 13 hours of intense work on painful, sensitive areas - an experience her client called "blood-curdlingly horrific".

"Alison was pretty clear about the idea that she had and what she wanted it to look like, but she also gave me a bit of freedom," Ms Rose, 24, said.

"Tattooing a breast is quite different to tattooing a leg or a back or something. It's a bit challenging to design something that would fit and work around it.

Image copyright Alison Habbal
Image caption Alison with her seven-year-old daughter Bessie

"It's quite humbling and it puts a lot of things in to perspective. That made it really cool to be able to do for her."

Alison, who is married and has a seven-year-old daughter, says she wasn't particularly bothered when she saw the results of her lumpectomy.

'So happy'

"The lump had been there for a while and it was hurting. I'd had visions of removing it myself, wanting to cut it out," she says.

"When I got it removed, I was so happy. I've never been so happy in my life. It probably wasn't the normal reaction - I didn't mind the scar."

Image copyright Alison Habbal
Image caption The intricate tattoo was completed over 13 painful hours in July this year

What bothered her more was a lack of resources for breast cancer survivors under the age of 40.

"There's not a lot of networking for younger women. I've had women contacting me through Instagram to ask me about what drugs I was on," she says.

"When you meet younger people they tend to latch on to you. There are very few to meet people if you're under 40."

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