Here, Debbie Casson, 52, tells the story in her own words.
S￼itting in the doctor’s office, I buried my head in my hands.
This cannot be real, I thought, my heart pounding.
‘It’s stage two breast cancer,’ the doctor said. I wanted to scream or hit something. It was so unfair.
Only four days earlier, in the very same building, I had been given the news I was battling an aggressive tumour in my sinus.
Then my doctor had encouraged me to have a free mammogram test and, terrifyingly, I had three tumours in my left breast.
In a matter of days, I’d found out I had not only one, but two awful cancers.
Back at home, I cried buckets of tears with my husband, James, 54, and our four beautiful children, Mitchell, then 22, Paige, 19, Tyler, 18, and Ruben, 16.
‘I just don’t believe it,’ I said, feeling broken. ‘We’ll get through it,’ James said. ‘One step at a time.’
It was a whirlwind, but now I was in survival mode.
I had surgery to remove the tumour in my sinus, which had almost reached my brain.
Just three weeks later, I was booked in for a mastectomy.
Waking up without my left breast and with months of chemotherapy and radiation on the horizon, I felt lost.
While scrolling through Facebook, I came across a support group for breast cancer survivors in NZ called Shocking Pink.
Reading posts, I noticed a common complaint.
There’s no tattoo parlours around me that do nipples and areolas, some wrote. I thought about my own missing left nipple and felt a pang of sadness.
As a nail technician, I’d worked in the beauty industry for over 28 years. Maybe this is my calling, I thought.
After recovering from my op, I signed up in courses for eyebrow and lip tattooing.
‘I need to learn the basics first,’ I told James.
Then, I moved onto learning how to tattoo skin that was altered by radiation, chemotherapy or scarring.
Using breast moulds, I started to ink tattoos of areolas and nipples.
When I felt confident to start offering nipple tattoos for breast cancer survivors, I met my first patient through Shocking Pink.
After I’d inked on a new nipple, she gazed into the mirror and burst into tears.
‘It’s perfect,’ she smiled, her eyes dancing with joy.
Her happiness set me off sobbing too. This is my path, I resolved.
Six years after my mastectomy and reconstruction, it was time to recreate my own nipple.
Barely able to look at myself in the mirror, I needed to feel normal again.
Another tattoo artist did the first inking, while I touched up the job myself. I feel complete again, I thought, looking at my tattooed nipple.
Some cancer survivors want realistic nipples, while one lady just wanted a simple daisy tattooed onto her breast. I also see a lot of self-harmers who want to camouflage old scars, using flesh coloured ink.
At my company, Lady Ink Cosmetic Tattooing, each nipple procedure can take between one to three hours.
It can take years for women to feel comfortable enough for a nipple tattoo, as it can feel like going under the knife again.
But I always reassure them it is painless and the end result is well worth it.
Recently, after travelling to London to learn how to use some new pigments, I couldn’t figure out where to practise my new skills.
‘Why don’t you tattoo my bottom!’ my hubby laughed.
So, using the new ink, I spent a few hours designing a nipple on his bum.
Looking at my handiwork in the mirror, James laughed.
‘How am I going to explain this to the guys?’ he joked.
Soon, James wants me to tattoo a few more nipples on his bum into the shape of the Southern Cross!
Thankfully, I am now in remission. I want to travel around the country tattooing others who have suffered like I did. Helping is the silver lining on a very dark cloud.
I’ve found my true passion in life – making other women feel beautiful and whole again.
Read more in this week's issue of that's life, on sale now.