This App Developer Helps Cancer Survivors Love Their Bodies

by Alex Gladu

The morning after last year's presidential election was tough for many Americans. Some celebrated now-President Trump's electoral victory the night before, while plenty cringed with disappointment and uncertainty for the road ahead. But Ariana Antonio had something different to cope with: The female app developer was diagnosed with breast cancer at the young age of 34. Now in recovery, Antonio is using her diagnosis — and her skills — to help others like her.

"I was actually diagnosed the day after the election," Antonio recalls, calling the experience "traumatic." She was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, which is the most common form of breast cancer, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. It was stage two, and she had a unilateral mastectomy, followed by reconstruction.

But Antonio also recalls the relief she felt from having an accommodating health insurance policy. "I was really fortunate that with my surgery, the bill came out to $108,000, and my portion of that was $250," she says. Now, while she is still undergoing follow-ups, things are a bit different.

"My company was very supportive at the time," she says, "but then, I got laid off." Antonio says her company didn't fire her because of her condition — the company laid off a number of people for what Antonio calls financial reasons — but losing her insurance didn't help her situation.

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Currently unemployed and without insurance, Antonio wonders how she'll ever find or afford coverage under a Republican-led health insurance system. Antonio says her "biggest fear" is that insurance coverage will be out of reach, particularly if the Republican plan scraps the requirement that insurance providers must cover people with pre-existing conditions. "If that is gotten rid of, I will not be able to get insurance," she says.

Not to mention, her diagnosis makes interviewing for new jobs more complicated. "I have to make sure they have the right insurance so I don't lose my doctors," she says.

While between jobs, though, Antonio certainly isn't wallowing. She's heading to Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California on a scholarship from Apple, which includes a free ticket and free lodging for the week of the conference.

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Antonio earned the scholarship by developing an innovative idea for a visually interactive app. The app she came up with was more than savvy enough for Apple; it also represents the journey Antonio has taken over the past several months. Called Ink After Pink, Antonio's app allows people who have had mastectomies to "try on" various tattoo designs. Antonio says she realized the need for such a program when she saw several women on social media asking about post-mastectomy tattoos for their breasts.

"For a lot of these women, this is their first experience with tattoos, and they don't even know if they're going to like it on them," Antonio says. "It's very, very common that I see women asking other women for pictures of what they got done and how it looks."

With Ink After Pink, people can upload a photo of their chest and overlay a variety of tattoo designs in order to visualize what each design would look like. If they aren't comfortable using a photo of their own chest, people can also choose from a selection of models. Antonio would also like to include a directory of tattoo artists who specialize in post-mastectomy tattoos, so that survivors could find an artist in their local area within the app.

Post-mastectomy tattooing has become a popular trend among breast cancer survivors. The surgery often leaves people with large scars and — depending on a woman's desire for reconstruction — a new chest shape. Tattoos allow survivors to regain control of their appearance and express themselves in their new bodies. With Ink After Pink, Antonio envisions a reality in which this body positivity is more accessible to people who want to consider their options.

Ariana Antonio/Ink After Pink

Ink After Pink is not yet available in the app marketplace, because Antonio only submitted a test version to the Apple scholarship pool. She does hope to bring the app to fruition, but it will take a funding source. "The ideal app to work on is one that I feel will make the world a better place," Antonio says. "I want something that actually has an impact."

According to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the rate of women undergoing mastectomies increased 36 percent from 2005 to 2013, the most recent data available. What's more, breast cancer remains the most common cancer diagnosis for women, after skin cancer. With breast cancer diagnoses and treatments having that level of pervasiveness, the potential for Antonio's app to do good is undoubtedly high.

While she searches for a job and a funding source for her innovative app, Antonio is also on the lookout for updates on federal healthcare legislation. At the beginning of May, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed its American Health Care Act (AHCA), taking a significant step toward dismantling the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act (ACA). As passed in the House, the AHCA allows insurers to charge a person with certain pre-existing conditions more for healthcare coverage. Such pricing was prohibited by the ACA. According to CNN, cancer would indeed fall into the category of pre-existing conditions that could result in higher insurance costs.

The also Republican-led Senate has since taken up the healthcare issue. GOP senators have reportedly begun work on their own healthcare bill. Antonio has a clear message for the senators who have yet to cast their votes in the hot-button issue: "Making insurance available and accessible to everyone is so insanely important," she says.

For the app developer, though, advocacy isn't the only way to support women. As a female app engineer — particularly in a world where men tend to dominate the app development space — Antonio seeks to put her skills to good use with Ink After Pink. Meanwhile, as a breast cancer survivor, she's in a powerful position to spread a much-needed message of body positivity.