'I lost a lot of beautiful humans': Cancer survivor making 'women feel whole again'

Debbie Casson. Photo: Supplied
Debbie Casson. Photo: Supplied
Debbie Casson from Lady Ink Cosmetic Tattooing in West Melton enjoys making women feel whole again. It was her own experience with cancer which drew the 55-year-old into the industry. She spoke to reporter Susan Sandys.

What motivated you to become a cosmetic tattooist, doing areola repigmentation, scar camouflage and permanent make-up?
I was a nail tech for 30 years. Through that I got a really rare cancer of the sinus. Four days later, I found out I had breast cancer. It was 2012. I couldn’t do my job anymore. I became part of a support group for young women diagnosed with breast cancer. I thought areola tattooing was something I could do, because I have always been really arty. I searched around and found somewhere in New Zealand where I could do training. I had to start with the basics. I learned (tattooing) eyebrows, eyeliner, lips. I concentrated on that for a year. The next stage is classed as advanced, you can’t just go from doing nothing straight to doing scar camouflage or areola.

It must have been terrifying to be diagnosed with two cancers within a week?
It was definitely an interesting journey. Looking back retrospectively, I’m happy I had them both at the same time. I didn’t just get over one to get thrown the other one. What happens to you makes you stronger – and makes you the person that you are. I went through the whole journey looking from the outside. I pretended it wasn’t myself. That was my way of coping.  

Had working as a nail technician given you sinus cancer?
They won’t give me 100 per cent on that. But there was two women that had worked in the industry the same amount of time as me. One I worked with both got cancer of the mouth. So you can’t tell me it is not related.

Debbie Casson had to fitted with a special mask while receiving radiation for her head for sinus...
Debbie Casson had to fitted with a special mask while receiving radiation for her head for sinus cancer. Photo: Supplied
Was the sinus cancer related to your breast cancer?
No, they tell me that was bad luck. Definitely not related, they were two primary (cancers).

What did your cancer journey involve?
It was quite a lot of surgeries, chemo, radiation. First they did my head surgery, they had to remove a lot of my sinuses. Then I had a mastectomy and reconstruction. Eight months later I had trouble with that, I had to get it removed. I don’t know if it was a reaction to an implant, it’s just my body didn’t like anything foreign in me. So a year later, I had my tummy brought up – there’s a couple of tummy transfers that they do, where they bring up part of your stomach and make your breast out of that. I am much happier knowing now that everything in me is just me.

It sounds like you have been through the whole suite of breast cancer experiences
I think that’s what makes me good at that part of my job, because I have been there. And I think the women appreciate also that they can come to me knowing I have walked in their shoes.

Why is it so important for women who have lost their areola and nipple to have it replaced with a tattoo?
It’s a real self-esteem thing. I went for five years without one myself, then I went to the United Kingdon to train with one of the top ladies doing areola in the UK. I thought I didn’t want it, that I would be okay. But I hadn’t looked at myself in the mirror for five years, because I hated what I saw. I suppose you don’t feel like a whole woman. She started mine and I completed it. I did my six-week touch up myself when I got home. And just to be able to get that glance in the mirror and go: ‘Oh, I feel normal again’. It is a huge psychological boost for women.

You must see a lot of sadness in your job?
Through the charity (Shocking Pink), I used to be involved with young women with breast cancer. I met a lot of beautiful humans, and I lost a lot of beautiful humans as well. I have lost quite a few friends through the breast cancer journey. You don’t know what is going to happen really. You are either lucky or you are not. For my (late) girlfriend, when she got diagnosed with secondary breast cancer, she wanted to leave this plane with her eyebrows done. And she wanted her nipples done. She said: ‘I want to leave whole’. My two catchphrases are: ‘I like giving the cherry on the top’ and ‘making women feel whole again’.

How would you compare what you do now to being a nail technician for 30 years?
I am still working with women and I am still working on an artistic level.

And now I think it is probably even more so, because when you give someone a new set of eyebrows or a nice set of eyeliner or you are doing a nipple, you are giving them something that makes them feel really good. And, in turn, that makes me feel really good. I think what I do now is definitely more rewarding than what I used to do.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I actually wanted to be a nurse, but I never got there. I ended up being a mum of four little kids under 6. That changes everything. I actually started doing nails when I was 16. I got mine done one day, and I went: ‘I could do this’. I went straight from school pretty much to doing nails. Then I actually did 18 months of midwifery (study) before I got pregnant with my fourth child, and I ended up on my own with the four kids. I was about 27 or 28. I was in Dunedin, and I decided I would move to Hamilton. So I went up there and grew into myself and grew up with my kids.

What are your goals?
The big thing for me is education, and keeping some type of qualification. I keep an American qualification, there’s not many regulations in New Zealand so a lot of people can just go and pick up a machine and do some YouTube training and think they are fantastic. There is a big push for regulations in New Zealand at the moment. But I keep my American qualification for the main fact it puts me above everyone, because I have a qualification where I could go to America and work where their regulations are so tight.

Debbie Casson had chemotherapy after being diagnosed with two forms of cancer in 2012. Photo:...
Debbie Casson had chemotherapy after being diagnosed with two forms of cancer in 2012. Photo: Supplied
You have travelled overseas to get your qualifications?
UK and America. I go to America every year. Well, I did up until Covid. I came back last month from doing advanced eyebrow training (in America). And our society, the SPCP (Society of Permanent Cosmetic Professionals) have got a convention in October in Texas, so I am going in October to Texas to learn all sorts of things.

And you operate at various locations in New Zealand?
I work in Hamilton two days a month. Last year, I was invited to a breast care private clinic in Auckland. I go up there every couple of months. I am just looking for new rooms in Dunedin. I have a purpose-built clinic in West Melton, we converted our third garage, it’s just been beautifully set up to cover everyone’s needs. 

What is your goal?
I would like to help as many people as I can. I would love to get better known in Selwyn, because I haven’t really promoted myself a lot down here. It’s just growing – growing my brand, giving back what I can. I want to be able to help women and men feel good about themselves, because it’s not just women who get breast cancer. And now, even cosmetic tattooing, in the way of eyebrows, men are getting the odd hair stroke put in because their eyebrows fall away too. Eyebrows do frame your face.

What’s your favourite cosmetic tattooing to do?
All of them are different. I love doing eyeliners, I am very reinvigorated about eyebrows since my training in the States, and I love areola. I am very lucky, it is not like a job to me because I love what I do. And to get up in the morning every day to do something you are really passionate about, it is not like going to work.