We caught up with Melanie, mastectomy swimwear designer and owner of Lady Survivors, who created the brand after a breast cancer diagnosis at age 39. She speaks to us about her cancer story and the creation behind her brand of swimwear for survivors of breast cancer.
Can you tell us a bit about your own personal story with cancer?
Melanie: I was 39 when I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2017. My children at the time were 3 and 8. I underwent a full mastectomy and had a breast reconstruction - I had to have my lymph nodes removed, and also my ovaries were removed as well. I then went through chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which took about 12 months. That was hard. Especially at that age, I didn’t think it would be cancer. But when you start looking into it there are so many young women that are getting diagnosed quite young with breast cancer. I did lose all my hair but it has come back so fast! I had a lovely wig!
I chose not to tell my children because they were so young at the time, we had only just moved house and I just couldn’t face telling them to be honest. I tried to keep things as normal as possible at home because it made me get up in the morning and get them to school. On the days that I had my treatments my sister would have them for the weekend, so they didn’t see me when I was really ill.
To move on to talk about Lady Survivors: what is your USP and your plans for the future?
Melanie: It started after I went on my first holiday since everything had happened. We went to Lake Garda and whilst I was there I went bikini shopping. I spent the afternoon in bikini shops and I didn’t realise how difficult it would be to find swimwear for the coverage that I now needed! I didn’t think it was going to be a problem, but it was. I was gutted on holiday and on the way back I was thinking about it and that’s where the idea came from. I drew up a few designs and got a start-up loan to pay for the first two designs so far. And in the future I would like to expand on the swimwear side of it, and on sportswear and maybe even beachwear to go with the bikinis.
When you were shopping, what was it that didn’t quite sit right and what wasn’t covered?
Melanie: A lot of them were underwired, like the triangle bikinis. But that didn’t cover up the scars that I’ve got now and didn’t give the support, because of the reconstruction it doesn’t look right on the other side, so you have to really pull it up to make them look similar. Little bikinis don’t do that anymore.
Have you come across anything similar to your product on the market?
Melanie: There’s quite a lot on the market but for older ladies, more frumpy swimsuits because it’s aimed at older ladies. They are all roughly around £100+ too so they’re really expensive. I wanted something that was more affordable because you like to change styles often when you’re away.
I wanted to get something out that would give confidence back to younger women who have had breast cancer, to feel a bit more confident again and feel sexy in their bikinis, whilst giving them the support and coverage they need so nothing falls out when they’re swimming.
Have people been in touch with you about your product? What’s their feedback on it?
Melanie: Yeah, there’s been one or two and I have sent a few out to people on Instagram who have done some nice stuff and sent some good feedback.
So what about future designs? Have you got any future designs coming?
Melanie: A couple of designs I’ve drawn up but no finance to back it at the moment. When I started it, it was before the pandemic but I continued with it, because I thought ‘it’ll only last 6 months and everyone will be going on holiday again’, but it’s gone on and on!
Jaqueline Gold from Ann Summers does an award every Wednesday, ‘Women on Wednesday’, and she picks a woman’s business to promote it and gives them an award. And then you become a part of the WOW community and every year they get together with Jacqueline. I won that a few months ago so I am hoping that will build some traction. I’m trying to get into some of the swimwear exhibitions as a lot of them have been cancelled and have been postponed until next year. I also managed to get on Sheffield radio where I had an interview about everything I am doing with the business.
So do you design the products yourself and deliver them yourself?
Melanie: Yes, they are all in storage and I’ve got hundreds of boxes. The bikini top you can buy a left or right strap, depending on what side you wear your prosthesis.
Mango have just brought one out because they have just realised the gap in the market. They brought one bikini out and it’s a triangular bikini and one strapless one which just doesn’t work, and it's black. That is why it is so important to have people with lived experiences making these products as they have just designed a bikini that has a pocket in it for you to put your prosthesis in, but the actual style of it is just a triangular string bikini, which just doesn't work.
So, have you got any advice for young women dealing with breast cancer?
Melanie: To stay strong and positive. We are really lucky to have the care we have in this country and they do look after us in the NHS. Stay positive and focused and you will get through it, there’s lots of support there for women. To think about yourself and look after yourself! Put yourself first for once! Most women don’t, they tend to put their things to one side and put their family first. This is the one time where you need to put yourself first.
And afterwards, when you hear that amazing news that you’re cancer free, any advice?
Melanie: Enjoy your life and live your life to the full. Once you’ve been through it you’ve always got it looming over you in the back of your mind. There are so many young women I know who are getting diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. Time is precious so make the most of it and enjoy life.
I think most of our readers won’t have had breast cancer or be survivors, so do you have any insight on how you would have preferred people to react? Anything that would have helped you in your situation?
Melanie: Just being there for people. There are certain things you shouldn’t say to cancer patients, like as soon as you tell people and they reply with ‘oh I know someone who had it, and they’re alright’, every story is different, and you don’t want to hear it. Just to support them as much as you can.
Finally we wanted to ask about being a mother with cancer. How did you juggle your responsibilities?
Melanie: It was hard at the time, definitely. It was really hard. I think it takes your mind off a lot of it and what’s going on because you have to just keep going. It was hard at the time. I think it's more the thoughts that go through your head about leaving your children behind mentally, it’s hard when you have younger children because you want to see them grow up, and you always have that in the back of your mind, that you might not see them doing the things you’re hoping to see. You’re reminded of that a lot. But I still shout at them every day! They still wind me up! I remind myself ‘I’m not going to shout at them today’ and then sometimes I just get like ahh!
Please help us get the word out about Lady Survivors so that people who have had mastectomies or breast reconstruction can have access to swimwear designed for them, by someone who knows what they need.
You can have a look at Melanie’s LinkedIn profile here: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/melanie-luxtonbrookes-03682a203