The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Cov­er­ing the scars of breast can­cer

One tat­too artist is help­ing sur­vivors re­claim their body with ink, for free

- By Vic­to­ria Yan

DIKWANEH, Le­banon: Af­ter de­feat­ing breast can­cer with a dou­ble mas­tec­tomy and rounds of chemo­ther­apy, 53-year-old Claude Alam felt like a fighter. And when she de­cided to tat­too over her scars, she trans­formed her trau­matic mem­o­ries into art.

“Af­ter the surgery, I ac­cepted and ap­pre­ci­ated my body for sur­viv­ing ev­ery­thing it went through,” Alam says, re­call­ing the long months in 2009 that changed her life.

“But dur­ing the re­cov­ery pe­riod, I slowly started to hate it. I was gain­ing weight and my breasts looked ugly. I tried to fix my chest with many op­er­a­tions.

“None of them worked to cover the scars left be­hind.” Then Alam found Joa An­toun. An­toun, a 28-year-old tat­too artist in Metn’s Dikwaneh, was rocked at the end of 2017 when doc­tors thought her mother might have breast can­cer. An­toun’s mother was lucky – a biopsy con­firmed her to be in good health.

Still, the scare had a per­ma­nent ef­fect on An­toun. The trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence would even­tu­ally con­nect with her to Alam and heal two emo­tional wounds at once.

When her mother was fac­ing a pos­si­ble di­ag­no­sis, An­toun says, “I did a lot of re­search to un­der­stand the can­cer.”

“Look­ing at all the scars, the nip­ples that were dis­fig­ured or com­pletely re­moved from many sur­vivors made me want to help.

“As a woman, your chest is a great part of your fem­i­nin­ity. To have these scars can re­ally be trau­ma­tiz­ing,” An­toun says.

Thus be­gan her re­search into “3D nip­ple tat­too­ing,” a tat­too­ing tech­nique that cre­ates a re­al­is­tic im­age of a nip­ple for breast can­cer sur­vivors, un­com­mon in Le­banon but more widely avail­able in the U.S. and Europe.

An­toun reached out to cer­ti­fied in­ter­na­tional tat­too artists, par­tic­u­larly those spe­cial­iz­ing in 3D nip­ple tat­too­ing, to mas­ter the tech­nique.

Af­ter train­ing, the young artist de­cided to start of­fer­ing the ser­vice to breast can­cer sur­vivors for free.

While some have come to her re­quest­ing new nip­ples, oth­ers, like Alam, have pre­ferred to cover up the scars with other de­signs, which An­toun also does for free.

“When my chil­dren told me about what she was do­ing, I met her and straight away fell in love with her big heart,” Alam says, prais­ing the ef­fect of An­toun’s work on her self-con­fi­dence and men­tal health.

“She changed my mood, my tem­per and my soul with the art.

“I adore her work on my body. God knows how much I ap­pre­ci­ate her soul,” Alam says.

In the past year, An­toun has al­ready worked with over 15 women, of­fer­ing her ser­vice via so­cial me­dia and con­nect­ing with breast can­cer aware­ness or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“While many of these women might not be on so­cial me­dia, their chil­dren, nieces and neph­ews are.

“There are so many breast can­cer sur­vivors in Le­banon that I haven’t had to work too hard to reach out to who might want a re­con­struc­tion.”

Alam was only 43 years old when she was di­ag­nosed.

To com­pare, the me­dian age of di­ag­no­sis is 62 in the U.S., and in Le­banon, women are nor­mally di­ag­nosed at around 52 years old.

De­spite her vig­i­lance and hav­ing yearly check­ups, Alam was di­ag­nosed only af­ter the can­cer had se­verely spread. Her story is one that is shared by scores of women in Le­banon, a coun­try that has high rates of breast can­cer, par­tic­u­larly among younger women.

In 2015, the Health Min­istry re­ported that there were 2,473 new cases of breast can­cer each year.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr. Hazem Assi, a pro­fes­sor spe­cial­iz­ing in on­col­ogy at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut, the fig­ure, cre­ated by a mul­ti­year av­er­age, trans­lates to a third of to­tal can­cer cases for women in Le­banon.

In Sep­tem­ber, an­other study con­ducted by the In­ter­na­tional Agency for Re­search on Can­cer and the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion said that 3,219 cases of breast can­cer were di­ag­nosed yearly in Le­banon, based on a mul­ti­year av­er­age.

The re­port also found Le­banon had the sixth-high­est in­ci­dence of breast can­cer in the world, at 97.6 cases per 100,000, and that the mor­tal­ity rate shot up past all other coun­tries, at 26 per 100,000.

“We do not know the ex­act rea­sons for in­creased can­cer risk in Le­banon, but sev­eral fac­tors are hy­poth­e­sized to be cul­prits,” Assi says. “First, we should not for­get the in­flow of Syr­ian refugees … that may af­fect the [WHO] sur­vey.

“Sec­ond, the re­gion is more ex­posed to en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors: pol­lu­tion, bi­o­logic tox­ins and high smok­ing rates … a ma­jor risk fac­tor for ma­lig­nancy.”

For­tu­nately, the wor­ry­ing statis­tics on breast can­cer are on the Health Min­istry’s radar. In 2013, a na­tional breast can­cer aware­ness cam­paign was launched by the min­istry in con­junc­tion with sev­eral med­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions and the Le­banese Breast Can­cer Foun­da­tion.

Ev­ery Oc­to­ber for Breast Can­cer Aware­ness Month, the min­istry, along with lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions, leads cam­paigns im­plor­ing women to get tested early and of­ten.

Re­call­ing do­ing her first 3D nip­ple tat­too, An­toun laughs, re­mem­ber­ing how scared she was.

“I didn’t work for three days prior to the ap­point­ment to men­tally pre­pare my­self,” she says.

“When she came in, I ac­tu­ally started shak­ing a bit. It was the first time I had seen some­one else’s breasts so in­ti­mately, but also breasts that were heav­ily scared and trans­formed af­ter surgery.”

The first time was the most emo­tional for An­toun, who ad­mits she strug­gled to stay pro­fes­sional as her client wept be­fore the ses­sion started, and af­ter the tat­toos were fin­ished. “I’m the kind of per­son who cries when I see a stranger cry, so it was re­ally dif­fi­cult. Her per­sonal story about the di­ag­no­sis was one of the most up­set­ting I had heard,” An­toun says.

“For me, it’s not that ex­pen­sive to do two a month for free. I free­lance as a graphic de­signer and a pho­tog­ra­pher on the side.

“I do [the tat­toos] for free be­cause I think of what my mother would have gone through, and I would have wanted her to re­claim her body as she wanted.”

 ??  ?? An­toun in her Dikwaneh tat­too par­lor. “As a woman, your chest is a great part of your fem­i­nin­ity. To have these scars can re­ally be trau­ma­tiz­ing,” she says.
An­toun in her Dikwaneh tat­too par­lor. “As a woman, your chest is a great part of your fem­i­nin­ity. To have these scars can re­ally be trau­ma­tiz­ing,” she says.

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