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Changing the experience for breast cancer survivors

Bra helps restore confidence after a traumatic experience
by: Vern Uyetake Breast cancer survivor Cary Goldberg says that, had she known about Handful bras sooner, they would have changed her experience over the past five years.

One in eight women in the United States will develop breast cancer over the course of their lifetimes, according to Breastcancer.org.

With statistics like that, it's hard to find someone who hasn't been affected by the disease in one way or another. It's also hard to find survivors whose outcomes and experiences are the same.

Taking into account these personal needs, one local company is helping breast cancer survivors adjust to their own 'new normal' after surgery.

Handful, based in Tualatin, has been in business since 2006. Its founder, Jennifer Ferguson, started the company to suit her own personal needs as an athlete, creating a sports bra specifically for smaller-breasted women.

'It was just a product I was missing and wishing was available and, after searching in vain, I just decided to design and develop and manufacture my own product,' she said.

Ferguson said she became aware of its use for breast cancer survivors after talking with the owner of Just Like a Woman, a shop that bills insurance for apparel that fulfills a person's medical needs.

'She was very specific about what she would like it to be so that she could promote it to her breast cancer survivors,' Ferguson said of the Handful bra.

So, Ferguson moved the pocket for bra padding from the top to the side and widened it so it would fit prosthetic breasts as well. A woman who has undergone a lumpectomy can insert an extra pad on one side for symmetry, and women who have undergone mastectomies can wear a prosthesis on one or both sides.

The Handful bra can be worn in a variety of ways and in a variety of situations.

'We're designed to be pretty versatile from workout to weekend,' Ferguson said. 'The great thing about the Handful bra is you can wear it for sport and for everyday wear (as well as) post-surgery.

'I've not found a sports bra I'd ever wear under a sundress besides this one.'

The product is available online and at a variety of athletic clubs and stores throughout the Portland metro area.

Lake Oswego resident and breast cancer survivor Chrys Culver said she'd known about the Handful bra as athletic wear for years but didn't know of its use for breast cancer survivors, as she underwent reconstructive surgery after her double mastectomy.

Culver met Ferguson at a party and connected her with fellow Lake Oswego resident and survivor Cary Goldberg, who was left with no breasts after her fight with cancer and who has not undergone reconstructive surgery.

Goldberg was diagnosed in her early 30s in 2006 with invasive ductal carcinoma, an aggressive Stage 3 cancer, and underwent four months of chemotherapy, five major surgeries and six weeks of radiation in her first year of treatment alone.

Despite her connections in the breast cancer survivor world, however, Goldberg said she hadn't heard of the Handful bra until she met Ferguson about two months ago.

'I've walked by (the bra) for probably years and never realized that this was a product that would work for someone like me who has no breasts,' she said.

Until recently, Goldberg said she simply went without a bra, because heavy prosthetic breasts are uncomfortable and cotton stuffing 'just doesn't look natural.'

Ferguson's bra, on the other hand, 'fits my lifestyle,' she said. 'It feels like another part of my clothing instead of like I'm slinging giant, heavy, fake silicone things over my shoulders.

'It would have changed my experience over the last five years.'

Now that the Handful bra has been approved as an official mastectomy bra that can be covered by insurance, this nonsurgical alternative is an even more feasible one.

Because of advances in plastic surgery, Goldberg said most survivors nowadays choose the route of reconstruction. But they don't have to.

'No one considers the option of not having to go through yet another surgery and recovery,' she said. 'Especially for young moms, when you can't even pick up your kids for weeks after a surgery, it's just nice to know that it is an option to not have to reconstruct.'

Goldberg heads up Young Survivors Portland, a support group that connects women throughout the Portland metro area who are diagnosed with breast cancer before they go through menopause.

When younger women are diagnosed with breast cancer, they usually attend their first support group meeting at a hospital with other, older breast cancer patients who say, 'I just want to dance at my grandson's wedding,' Goldberg said. The women in Young Survivors Portland, on the other hand, '(say) they just want to have a child or see their child get on the kindergarten school bus - or they're just dating.'

Members of Young Survivors Portland gathered at Culver's home for a focus group Oct. 13 to meet with Ferguson and share their thoughts about the Handful bra.

At the gathering, each of the women was fitted for a Handful bra and given one to test. Their input was meant to allow Ferguson to improve the bra's fit and feeling.

'We just want to hear from as many survivors as possible,' Ferguson said. 'They all go through different experiences, so to hear as many different scenarios as possible and to know as many ways as possible our bras can be of service to them is really what we're looking for.'

Ferguson said she'll take the information gathered from the focus group and continue to try and tailor the Handful bra to breast cancer survivors in the future.

'It's the one segment (of customers) that literally say, 'Handful has changed my life,'' Ferguson said. 'I honestly can say working with the survivors has had a profound impact on my life personally. … I guess the word for me is 'inspired.''