Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"I Cheated Cancer"

Today's "Wednesday Warrior" is Patricia Brett. Patricia's immediate and extended family have been ravaged by breast cancer. She has lost loved ones and has seen several family members suffer through surgeries and treatments to beat breast cancer. Patricia herself, feeling like it was only a matter of time before she would have breast cancer, underwent a prophylactic double mastectomy to give herself a chance to live a long life and be able to enjoy seeing her son grow up. She tells her story so well below.   What we really love about Patricia is that she used this awful experience to help other breast cancer survivors by creating a product to help women feel better about themselves after losing their breasts.  Please read Patricia's story below to find out more about her family history with breast cancer and the amazing product she developed to help breast cancer survivors!!



"I cheated cancer.

These three little words would be enough to satisfy most people for a lifetime. For me, it simultaneously signaled the end of one journey and the start of a new one. It also taught me there is a real truth to the old saying "everything comes full circle."

I grew up in Ravenna, OH, the youngest girl in a family of 11 children. My father, the oldest son in a family of ten, had the added responsibility of looking after his siblings. This included his youngest sister Veronica, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 41. I went with him to visit her in the hospital and remember him bringing her wigs. I knew he was thinking, "If only she could look better she would feel better, and then she'd get better." Sadly that wasn't to be the case. Including Veronica, who passed away at age 44, my dad lost three of his six sisters to breast cancer, all at young ages. I always knew, even as a child, that breast cancer was somehow "in the family". I wouldn't realize just how much until many years later.

In February 1998, my sister Regina was diagnosed with breast cancer - at age 41. She had to undergo the full treatment - mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. The first in my generation, she was soon followed by three first cousins, all about my age or younger, including two of Veronica's daughters.  Later, more cousins were diagnosed, two with breast cancer and one with ovarian cancer.

It turns out that my family carries a genetic mutation that predisposes us to breast and ovarian cancer.  The cold hard facts - while there is a 50% chance of having the BRCA1 gene, if you do have it, there is up to an 85% chance of getting breast cancer in your lifetime. And with my family history, it wasn't "if", it was "when".

In early 2002, I tested positive for the BRCA1 gene. Of the six girls in our family, only my sister Regina and I carry the gene. I always knew I was like my father. The person from whom I inherited the genes for blue eyes, long skinny legs and hard work ethic, passed along to me a genetic mutation for breast cancer. Luckily, he never knew this himself, having passed away before our discovery.

After a whole summer spent worrying about whether or not I had breast cancer, followed by surgical biopsies (all negative!) I decided to eliminate my risk. So, in January 2003, I had a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. I was 39.  My son had just turned two and I knew I needed to be around to see him grow up. Four years later,  in May 2007, after a long and difficult decision-making process, I had my ovaries removed. While these measures may seem drastic to some, it was the only way I could insure that, at the very least, breast or ovarian cancer would not prevent me from some day attending my son's wedding or seeing him graduate from college.

Strangely enough it was a wedding, or more specifically, Regina's visit to New York in search of a dress for her daughter's wedding, that started my entrepreneurial wheels turning. She wanted something beautiful, sexy and elegant, which could also accommodate her thick-strapped bra and breast forms (she calls them "Thelma and Louise"). We scoured all of Manhattan and found nothing. She ended up wearing the same simple, black, tank-style column dress she had worn to countless other events. It just struck me, after everything breast cancer survivors have to contend with, finding something to wear shouldn't be yet another challenge.

Then, in October 2007, not long after my ovarian surgery, I joined Regina and her then 29 year-old daughter Gabe for a girls' weekend. Gabe, who inherited the BRCA1 gene from her mother, had scheduled her own risk-reducing bilateral mastectomy for December of that year. Like her mother, she opted not to have reconstruction. For perspective, this was my 5'2", blond-haired, blue-eyed, tiny, beautiful, recently married niece who wore cute little camisoles with colorful bra straps peeking out!  While she had made peace with the idea of surgery, she spent the weekend venting, "I'll have to give away my entire wardrobe!" or "The mastectomy swimsuits are all floral with horrible little skirt bottoms." You get the picture.

That Monday I came back to New York, pulled out my sketchbook and began to draw.  At the same time, I drafted a rough business plan with the (admittedly) unglamorous working title 'Fashions for Women - Post Mastectomy'.  I joked, "If I can design a building, surely I can design a bra or swimsuit?!" After all, I did have a Master of Architecture degree from Yale! Armed with inspiration from my sister and my niece, I set out to create something to help both breast cancer survivors and pre-vivors (a person like me, who has not been diagnosed with cancer, but has survived the higher risk of cancer) look and feel like a million bucks again.

I made the first swimsuite myself, fashioned from a store-bought pattern that I modified to add coverage where needed, cut it a bit sexier where I could and added pockets that allowed for breast forms.  It was totally crude - the suit barely held together, the leg seams and armholes weren't even finished.

The next time my sister came to New York for a visit, I asked her to try it on.  Almost immediately her eyes lit up, she burst into tears and started twirling like a little girl.

"This is the sexiest thing I've worn in ten years!" she declared.  "This could be the bodice of a dress, a shirt, a body suit...!"

Since then, I've worked with more patternmakers, sample sewers and factories than I care to admit.  It's a technical, well-engineered solution that requires a high level of expertise. Maybe that's why some of those other suits looks the way they do.  But I kept at it, knowing that, if I was successful, one day women all over the world would have the opportunity to twirl around like my sister and feel fabulous all over again.

The brand, which debuted in Spring 2010, is named veronica brett, in honor of my aunt Veronica who we lost to breast cancer 35 years ago. She was beautiful, intelligent, elegant, and an inspiration.  I want every woman who wears a product bearing her name to feel the same way, and to truly believe our philosophy that "LIFE NEVER LOOKED SEXIER".

These pictures are of one swimsuit that Patricia designed and is modeled by breast cancer survivor and activist, Stephanie LaRue.  Please visit Patricia's beautiful website, Veronia Brett,  to see many more.  You can also find her company on FACEBOOK and TWITTER.

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