SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — A man battling stage 4 kidney cancer is on a mission to celebrate life — and leave a lasting impact on many.
Don Caskey, an Ohio man with a love of tattoos, says he was diagnosed with the terminal illness in December 2019. By New Year’s Eve, he’d undergone surgery to remove a kidney.
“It weighed about 8 pounds, the thing was huge, just full of cancer,” Caskey told WSAV NOW.
The disease has since spread to his lymph nodes. Last summer, the 54-year-old father of five began reflecting on life and the things that matter to him the most.
“I looked down at the tattoo I got for my cancer, the dying pine tree, and I realized that I can’t take anything material with me, I can’t take money or cars when I die, but those memories, those tattoos, they will go with me, I believe,” said Caskey, who got his first tattoo at age 40.
He embarked on a journey of expanding his collection of ink — but he didn’t plan to do it alone.
“I just thought I’d start asking people if they want to join me, create more memories, have more human connectivity and make a lot more friends,” Caskey said.
“At first, people thought I was kind of crazy, I mean, they’re looking at me like, ‘what the heck, this guy wants to get in touch with me, he doesn’t even know me,’” he said.
He began his tattoo journey on Aug. 23, 2020, by posting on Facebook his plans to appear at different tattoo shops to get tatted with complete strangers.
“People just kind of show up,” Caskey said. Since August, he says he’s gotten matching tattoos with 141 people.
So far, he’s visited tattoo shops in Georgia, Florida, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Maryland, bonding with newfound friends through their love of body art.
“The cancer part — yeah, it sucks — but I’m having one of the best times of my life,” he said.
Caskey kicked off the new year in Savannah, stopping by Tramp Art Studios on Victory Drive.
He says about 14 people joined him in getting matching tattoos over two days. One of them was Nina Bragg.
“One of my friends and I came in to get tattoos, and he was sitting right here and asked what we were going to do,” Bragg told WSAV NOW.
“I told him what tattoos we were getting, and I jokingly asked if he wanted to get one as well,” Bragg said, adding, “He was like, ‘well, actually, let me tell you my story,’ so he told us and asked if it was okay if he could get a matching tattoo with us, and of course, we said yes.”
Their tattoo of choice seemed fitting for Caskey’s visit to the Peach State.
“I got a Georgia peach on my butt,” he said.
He says he’s overwhelmed and humbled by the support that total strangers have shown him on his celebration-of-life journey thus far.
One woman who beat cervical cancer drove over an hour to Savannah just to get matching cervical cancer survivor tattoos with Caskey.
“To have somebody put something permanent on their body for me, it just is huge,” Caskey said. “I don’t know how to describe it, other than it’s just one of the most amazing feelings ever.”
He says he’s received support and messages from people all over the world. “I get people that connect with me saying ‘hey, I’ve got Crohn’s disease,’ or ‘I’ve got depression,’ or ‘my dad died of cancer,’ saying that I’m inspiring them to get through whatever they’re going through,” Caskey said.
Tramp Art Studios owner Kirsten Cassat, along with a few of her colleagues, also took part in Caskey’s mission.
“I have a lighter with ‘Don’ in the middle of it,” Cassat said, describing her new tattoo.
“I think it’s awesome, I’ve never experienced anybody doing what he’s doing,” Cassat said.
“He’s really brought something new into our lives that we didn’t know was going to be a thing,” she added. “People don’t get matching tattoos with just anybody, so it is a special connection that he brought to our community.”