22 Feb 2019

'The cherry on top': tattooing breast cancer survivors

From Afternoons, 1:28 pm on 22 February 2019

Her husband offered up his bottom for practice and now tattoo artist Debbie Casson has founded a business aimed at giving new hope and confidence to survivors of breast cancer.

Six years ago, Casson had her right breast removed due to breast cancer and she knows all too well the pain and suffering that come with it. 


tattooing Photo: Pixabay

Casson tattoos realistic nipples and areolae onto reconstructed breasts, helping people who've had mastectomies to feel normal and complete again.

She joined Jesse Mulligan to explain how the idea came about, and why she does what she does.

Casson was told in 2012 that she had a rare form of sinus cancer which may have come from her job as a nail technician. Four days later she was hit with the double whammy of breast cancer.

“That started a very long journey of lots of surgeries and chemotherapy. I had to look at a career change because I could no longer do the jobs that I used to do and love. That’s where it all began for me.”

She had three tumours which weren’t all localised in one area. The mastectomy was a decision she “had to make.” 

“It’s a hard thing to think about. You’ve got so many emotions and things going through your head. But you think of your family and you think of your children and you’ve got to do the right thing. So, it was an easy decision really because I wanted to live and I wanted to carry on.”

The hardest part, she says, is feeling the loss of self and not recognising the person in the mirror. She had thoughts about whether she would still be attractive and says you wonder if your partner or husband will stay with you.

“What do other people think, really. And it’s amazing, a lot of people that you class as your really close friends seem to be the people that disappear and the people that were on the periphery were the people that came in to rescue you. It’s an interesting journey. A very interesting journey.”

She says she’s not the only one to have close friends run a mile when the hear the c-word. 

“A lot of the girls I come into contact with everyday have that experience. The people who they thought were their forever friends are gone. It’s interesting, I’d love to know what it is.”

Casson says she wanted to keep working with women, and stay in the beauty industry but needed to come up with something new. She now works as part of a charity for young women who’ve had mastectomies and reconstruction surgeries, but are left with a mound with nothing to distinguish it as a breast. That’s where she comes in. Casson now makes 3D nipples for breast cancer survivors. 

“In New Zealand we’re quite lucky because a lot of plastic surgeons will make a little nipple nub, so I just need to tattoo an areolae. But a lot of women don’t want to have that surgery so they come to me with just a smooth mound and I will tattoo on a nipple that looks like it’s sticking out, but it’s flat. It’s the best of both worlds because they can look at it from any direction and it looks like a sticking out nipple, but they get to wear a t-shirt without worrying about it showing through.”

She says she loves the job and finds it “very satisfying.” She also travels once a year to keep up her training and ability. 

Casson received her own nipple tattoo from a woman in the UK she ended up training with. Her mentor started the tattoo, but Casson finished it off herself when she got back to New Zealand.

She has mounds to train on, but also has a willing human test subject to do the real thing.

“I tattooed my husband’s bottom, so he’s got a nipple on his backside. That’s the best thing for me to practice on because it’s real skin, and when I’ve got a new product I don’t want to try it on patient until I know how it’s going to work in the skin. He’s a very, very kind man who’s given up his bottom for the girls.” 

“He’s got one at the moment, but he’s aiming for another three because he wants them to look like the Southern Cross. The Southern Cross of nipples.” 

She says the reaction of the girls when they see the finished nipple is an emotional one for them and her. One of her patients was only 30 years old when she had a double mastectomy and went without nipples for six years. It was change her and her husband found difficult to deal with. 

“The minute she looked in the mirror, the emotion, the tears - and that come back to me because I feel that too. I know what she’s feeling when she looks at that. For me, it’s the most satisfying thing. Being able to turn something really shitty around and turn it into a really positive thing and those women love the fact that I’ve been there and done that too. It makes them whole. My motto is giving them the cherry on top.” 

Casson estimates she’s done well over 100 women’s nipples now and says that, sadly, it’s an industry that’s growing because of the country’s breast cancer rate. Currently, she works in the Waikato area and has a contract with the local DHB. 

“My ultimate goal is to just be able to travel up and done the country helping women. Each one is special for me.” 

You can find out more about Casson's work through her website.

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