Real Life

My tattoos change ladies’ lives

Debbie’s ink gives hope to Kiwi cancer survivors
Debbie Casson

Tattoo artists have a reputation for being tough, but when Debbie Casson inks new nipples onto the reconstructed breasts of cancer survivors, she can’t help but shed tears of joy – because she’s a survivor too.

After recovering from sinus and breast cancers – which she believes were the result of the dust and chemicals from her 27 years as a nail technician – the Hamilton mum-of-four trained as a cosmetic tattooist to help women like herself.

Debbie’s health dramas first began on holiday four years ago. “It was the pressure in the aircraft,” explains the 48-year-old. “I thought I was having an aneurism. The pain in my head knocked me off my feet.”

Her doctor recommended surgery to have some polyps removed from her sinuses and, after the operation, Debbie was encouraged to have her first free mammogram, as she was about to turn 45.

Three weeks later, she was called back to the hospital as something sinister had been found in her sinuses – a very rare tumour, which had almost reached her brain. Unbelievably, four days later, her mammogram results revealed stage-two breast cancer. “It knocked me for six,” Debbie remembers.

Her husband James, 50, was also floored. “You’re living your life, then within minutes, it’s turned upside down. I couldn’t believe it,” he tells.

Debbie had the tumour removed from her sinuses, followed by a mastectomy three weeks later. She then underwent radiation treatment and six months of chemotherapy.

Debbie recalls, “The worst day was when I had my head shaved. Clumps had been falling out, so my daughter came round to do it for me. That was hard.”

Debbie made friends at a breast cancer support group called Shocking Pink. It was there that she heard about the expense of “nipple repigmentation”, as it is properly called, with some tattooists charging up to $1000 per nipple. “I thought, ‘That’s so wrong,’ because it’s the final step in their journey back to how they were before the cancer,” says Debbie. “It should be a right and not just for those who can afford it.”

Debbie’s 3D-effect tattoos replicate the appearance of a regular nipple area, while camouflaging surgical scars. Inset: before (left) and after (right) the tattoo.

So she trained in cosmetic tattooing, specialising in scar camouflage and areola repigmentation, where she tattoos coloured, 3D-effect nipples onto those who can’t face the surgery required for a nipple reconstruction.

“I love the artistic side of it and making women feel good is instantly gratifying for me,” says Debbie. “Watching their faces as they look in the mirror is so rewarding and I know exactly what they’ve been through. It’s emotional.”

At her company, Lady Ink Cosmetic Tattooing, Debbie charges $350 per nipple. Each one takes about two hours to complete and she has a Givealittle page for those who can’t afford the treatment.

This year, Debbie, who is in remission, had a breast reconstruction. Once it’s fully healed, she’ll tattoo her own nipple on.

“Life is for living,” she smiles. “This disease has given me my true calling in life, to help other women feel beautiful and whole again.”

Get Woman’s Day home delivered!  

Subscribe and save up to 29% on a magazine subscription.

Related stories