Kate and Sarah didn't know each other before they were both diagnosed however a mutual friend put them in touch after diagnosis so they could support each other through their cancer journeys together. And thank god she did! Fast forward to 2021, and they’re running their own bespoke bra fitting service with a selection of underwear for women of all ages, styles, tastes and needs. Their business is underpinned by their resilient attitudes and heart-warming friendship, creating an environment that radiates support and encouragement for all women before, during and after their experiences with breast cancer.
Sarah was 37 when she felt a lump in her breast and was referred to the breast clinic by her GP, where she was told the lump was cancerous. Sarah was diagnosed two months after returning to work having given birth to her second child, and it was apparent quickly that she needed a mastectomy. Sarah had one breast removed without reconstruction within 10 days of diagnosis, as well as six months of chemotherapy and three weeks of radiotherapy. Her treatment was concluded in March 2019, and Sarah is now on a “cocktail of oestrogen suppressants” including tablets and monthly injections to suppress any return of the tumour, which had spread to her lymph nodes.
Kate was 36 when she found a lump in her breast which, once checked, found out that she carried the mutated BRCA2 gene, meaning that over time cancers, particularly ovarian, breast, prostate and pancreatic cancer are more likely to develop. As a preventative measure, Kate had a double mastectomy with reconstruction and a hysterectomy and then six months of chemotherapy. Kate now takes some oestrogen suppressants, tablets which she will have to take for the next 10 years as a preventative measure.
We hope this interview can aid any women who are experiencing anything similar to Kate or Sarah and would like to normalise women feeling sexy and confident post breast cancer treatments.
So, do the hormones that you’re both taking effect you in every day life?
Kate – they do have side effects, they essentially induce an early menopause. It’s a weird thing to live with whilst being in your 30s, people are very dismissive when you’re having a hot flush, assuming that you’re too young for such a thing.
Sarah – I’ve had it so many times where an older woman has said “Oh, but you’re too young to have a hot flush!”, and then when you explain that you’re on hormones there’s definitely a back track.
Sarah, you chose to not have a breast reconstruction whereas Kate you had both reconstructed. What kind of considerations did you both go through when deciding, and do you have any advice for women who have to make this choice?
Sarah – well it’s absolutely a personal choice for every single woman having to make it. Breasts are a big part of how a woman feels that she looks, and rightly so, we are born with them! I chose not to have my breast reconstructed mainly for time and efficiency purposes – I didn’t want to have to wait to have an appointment regarding the reconstruction, and then have to enter two back to back surgeries (one for the removal, second for reconstruction), which would have been a long procedure. I guess I didn’t care enough about it personally to warrant any more waiting around. I’ve had my kids, I’ve used my boobs as they were meant to be used re. breast feeding, I’ve had my fun (laughs). I knew I could wear a prosthesis if I wanted to and that was suitable for me.
Prosthesis: an artificial device that replaces a missing body part, which may be functional or purely cosmetic.
Kate – it’s such a personal but also pressured choice. You’re in a position where you have to make a decision very quickly – your mind changes so quickly. Mentally, you feel like your boobs are trying to kill you and you just want them out, having to make considerations such as whether to have a mastectomy or not is by no means easy. My female surgeon encouraged me to really consider having both breasts reconstructed, and she told me not to downplay the psychological impact of waking up completely flat and how this might affect me. You can get both the removal and reconstruction all in one single surgery, and you can always take the implants out if you want to. I wanted the cancer to be gone and felt that I could come to terms easily with how my body and mindset had changed, but looking back now I see my surgeon’s point. They look great but feel like I have two rocks going round with me! I can’t comment about whether my feelings will change in the future regarding my decision, but for now I am happy.
I think the decision to go flat gives women a real sense of feeling empowered, which is so important as a breast cancer thriver. I lost all of my hair during my chemotherapy, and after having problems with the wig I had bought, I ditched it and felt this inner sense of resilience when I walked into a room bald. I was going against what society expects – I used to have long hair where I would go for blow dries every week. I was so into my image, but I realised when I was wearing a wig and hat during chemotherapy I was only wearing this to shield everyone else. Then I began to think, actually, I’m okay about the way that I look. And I think that’s the same with deciding to have a reconstruction or go flat – that’s my choice and if that’s what I want, I’ll do it.
When going through chemotherapy, there is an option to use a cold cap. Did either of you decide to use one?
Cold cap: a freezing cold cap worn by people during their chemotherapy sessions as a way to potentially stop their hair falling out.
Sarah – yes we both used a cold cap. It worked for me – my hair did thin slightly but I didn’t lose my hair and I maintained the length. It was amazing when my oncologist asked to take photos of my hair to show patients how, if you persevere with the cold cap, it really can work! But it is a 50/50 chance whether you get this lucky.
Kate – Sarah was like Rapunzel whereas I did lose my hair! I used the cold cap but I started to get bald patches. Initially I used a combover style, but I realised that I was actually more fearful of having to put the cold cap on than the chemotherapy itself, so I gave up on it altogether.
Sarah – the cold cap really is horrible and some people fair better with it than others. You end up wearing it for a long time – for a period before the chemotherapy, then for the length of the treatment and up to one hour afterwards. It’s absolutely freezing. After some time, the pain goes away but it is still highly uncomfortable. I was vomiting before the chemotherapy sessions due to a mixture of fear of the cap and knowing the side effects of the treatment, thankfully I was given anti-anxiety tablets to assist.
It’s an interesting point that the importance of hair and for women to feel that they should look a certain way means that women, on top of dealing with the anxiety and suffering of chemotherapy, also have the option to place more anxiety and suffering with a cold cap. Something that men enduring chemotherapy may not have even considered wearing.
Kate – breast cancer is an attack on womanhood – it affects your breasts, hair and it can affect your ability to have children, if placed on medication afterwards. I had a high maintenance wig after ditching the cold cap which I wore all the time, but it took a lot of looking after and it really annoyed me. In the end I ripped it off because it was too much to bear.
So tell us about your company, The Bra Sisters, and why you set it up.
The Bra Sisters are a post-mastectomy bra fitting and consultancy service set up by Kate and Sarah to try and assist women in tackling the ‘post-mastectomy bra wilderness’. Kate and Sarah offer care (post-mastectomy) and non-care bra ranges, from both mainstream and specialist brands, all with a fashion-forward and contemporary feel (including swimwear!).
Kate – I met Sarah when we were both going through our treatment. Coming out of treatment, we were looking for a positive experience and some normality after dealing with cancer. What we actually experienced was very negative bra-fitting sessions. I went to a department store for my first bra fitting after my mastectomy and expected everything to be okay – both my breasts are reconstructed. But when I disclosed that I had breast cancer and a double mastectomy, the fitting lady looked at me like I was a dead woman walking. She looked so flustered! She went off and found me a horrible bra from a brand that I’d never heard of, and at that point I thought: oh god of course I can’t wear the same sort of bras that I wore before. I felt so disheartened as I walked out of the store. Looking back, I wish someone would have told me that I can wear nice underwear. I’m not ‘cancer Kate’ anymore.
Sarah – after my surgery a breast cancer nurse came in and said I was going to need a different bra as my ones before surgery were underwired. She gave me a couple to try at home and a soft post-surgery prosthesis to give me some symmetry. The bras were too big, they were very standard – plain and functional. Nobody had ever said to me before my surgery that I won’t be able to wear the bras I was currently wearing (my surgeon was a man so won’t have thought about these kinds of things). So that was my first ‘bra-fitting’ if that’s what you would call it. I went to a specialist bra fitter at a clinic on Harley Street for my second bra-fitting. It was in a clinical consulting room and she had a suitcase of bras for me to try, and it was a really odd experience.
Kate – we thought it was just us who wanted some normality with bra fitting after our mastectomies, but we soon found out that across the board on our network we felt the same. We didn’t want to feel like someone who is sick or a patient all the time, like we weren’t good enough for nice lingerie. It was a constant reminder of the cancer. We believe that everyone deserves to have a good experience with their bra fitting, hence why The Bra Sisters offers a bespoke bra fitting service just for that. Everyone deserves to have an experience that’s good. I think a lot of it comes from the fact that historically a lot of surgeons are men, who don’t realise how important lingerie is to a woman. My Mum had a mastectomy too and I remember her being really embarrassed about her scarring, and she had to wait years for a reconstruction. It’s almost like she had to wait all that time to prove that she really wanted and deserved one. The importance of the way a woman looks and feels about how she looks has never been properly recognised. In the general scheme of cancer it’s like it doesn’t matter, but it really does.
Sarah – based on our own experiences we thought, there has to be a better way of dealing with this. And we wanted to fill the gap. Looking at the services and ranges of bras available for women who have had mastectomies makes you realise that we are pigeon-holed into certain kinds of bra designs, which can look horrible and be totally different to what you were wearing before. Some women want to wear nice, sexy underwear no matter what age they are. And we thought, why don’t we train to be specialist bra fitters to see if there’s something we can do differently? And that’s where the idea of The Bra Sisters came from. We completed a bra fitting course and then a specialist course for post-surgery bra fitting. Since then we’ve been working out where we can host fittings and the partnerships we can have etc. We want to offer something so much better – even just a little bit better to make women that were in our situations happier. The benchmark is currently so low because this issue is overlooked.
Before Covid-19, were you doing bra fittings in person?
Sarah – well we properly launched in October 2020!
Kate – the business was almost ready to go in February 2020 but then the lockdown happened. We’ve been operating completely virtually, which is such a shame but we’ve made a great network. We’re desperate to begin fitting bras properly.
Where will you be based?
Sarah – our launch is based in a London clinic where we both had our surgeries, but we hope to be all around London and eventually nationally doing things such as pop up face to face clinics. We also offer a pop up fitting service at a central London hotel which we feel gives women the experience they deserve.
Kate – currently it’s just us two, but the dream is to expand and move across the country.
Sarah – home visits will also be done once the restrictions allow. Some women won’t want to have to travel and will want the service brought to them in an environment where they feel comfortable.
What is it that’s important for post-mastectomy bras? Can you wear normal bras if you want to?
Kate – if you're wearing a prosthesis then it can be better to have bras with a pocket, and we’ve seen new brands designing gorgeous bras that don’t look like they are ‘post-mastectomy bras’ whatsoever. We do market research, try underwear products and if we like them, we offer them on our site for people to purchase. Women are surprised and so happy when they see what we offer on our website. Some women can wear underwired bras still but it depends on the scarring – for example I can. Women want fashionable bras and the industry needs to do more to modernise their products. More general brands need to normalise mastectomies in order to make breast cancer more accepted.
We noticed that you offer matching underwear sets, which we found a really empowering thing. Obviously, you don’t need to sell matching knickers, but it’s a big thing for sexual empowerment.
Sarah – I’ve never been bothered about matching underwear myself but I know that some women are and it can be a big thing. Lots of women find matching sets really important and why shouldn’t they be able to purchase them after a mastectomy. Women may have liked pretty or sexy underwear before their surgery, so once they’re ready to be in that mindset again why wouldn’t that feeling come back? That’s what The Bra Sisters is trying to do – show that you can wear the stuff that you wore before, there are options of specialist products that fit the mould of your style before. You may have had breast cancer but what you wear doesn’t need to show that.
We see that one of the goals of The Bra Sisters is to stop women feeling like breast cancer survivors, but breast cancer thrivers. How can and do breast cancer survivors feel this empowerment?
Kate – when you’ve had cancer, you re-evaluate your life. You’ve faced your fears and you’ve come out the other side. Sarah and I have a strong connection and bond just because we supported each other through our journeys. The Bra Sisters is part of trying to help women feel that inner sense of resilience. Having taken control of a genetim (faulty genes), thrivers should feel powerful after this experience. I feel like I have gone through something that I really feared, and I don’t have to worry anymore about things that I would have before. I faced mortality, and I feel strong rather than a victim. People say they feel sorry for me and I don’t feel sorry. Coming through something like this, I believe there’s a reason why this has happened to me and it has benefited my life. I’m not going to sit here feeling sorry for myself.
Sarah – it’s not as hidden away anymore either. The movement is very vocal and charities have done so much to raise awareness of cancer. Kate’s Mum didn’t talk about her cancer, and my Nanna had breast cancer before I was even born. It was a big taboo that nobody mentioned. But that’s changed now, people talk about it and there’s a lot of online platforms. Cancer is not a death penalty anymore – and it’s becoming less and less so. The way that social media has become a massive vehicle for empowerment is great too, there are posts of people with one boob, no boobs, and it’s brought about a real sense of community.
On the topic of social media – let's talk nipple censoring. We find it incredibly damaging for women’s empowerment, but in terms of breast cancer recovery and post-surgery confidence, it must really affect the accessibility for these women of seeing post-surgery options such as areola tattooing?
Sarah – the censorship of nipples I find generally crazy – why do that? How is a nipple offensive in any way? Not just on social media, but the blackout bars over nipples that you see on images everywhere. What is the point when we can see the breasts anyway? Why not show nipples in all their glory? By censoring nipples, you’re actually sexualising it more. We’re not talking about hardcore porn. And the censoring of areola tattoos is also crazy. Let women celebrate the fact they’ve gone for the bold option of a tattoo. It’s incredibly important for post-mastectomy women to see what’s on offer – for some women who have had their nipples taken away it’s some element of normality. The sexualisation of breasts is impacting on the education of breast cancer in so many ways, the access to knowledge about the various nipple options available being one of those.
We’ve seen tattoos that are not tattoos of nipples but actual artwork designs instead on the breast and we think this is beautiful – totally something that needs to be widely accessible for women to make a choice about what tattoo, if any, they’re going to have on their breasts.
Kate – we love these, they look amazing!
So, how can we as non-breast cancer thrivers help to empower people who have been through breast cancer?
Sarah – I think people just need to listen to the voices of those who have been through breast cancer. If there’s a need being expressed then take a moment and do something about it. We thought that we were on our own with the way that we thought about underwear post-surgery and our experiences, but it turns out that people have contacted us who have been in a desperate situation for years. Women have been waiting a decade for a bra?! We don’t think we’ve done anything massively radical, but it’s astounding at how neglected these women have been. It shouldn’t be just that small start-ups like us are the only ones covering underwear for different breast forms. Smaller companies don’t have enough power – it’s the bigger brands who can impact the market so they should be taking notice of the demand. There hasn’t been a revolution yet, but there needs to be one.
Kate – it’s not just a small proportion of society impacted by this. We are all connected by cancer and it impacts a lot of people. There’s a lot of noise about it, but we want change. We want people to know that we’re not victims, we don’t want to feel like sick people anymore, we want to live positively. We need a world where things are changing to suit cancer patients and survivors.
We see a big movement up and coming, and we are so ready for it.
Make sure you follow the Bra Sisters on Instagram and pass on the details of these wonderful ladies to any breast cancer thrivers around you.
Photo credit to: @Simonemmettstudios, @kornykopia, @FutureDreams, @mynaturana and @monicaharrington