A Cancer-Curated Wardrobe is Essential Throughout Treatment

Antonia DePace

While it may not be the first thing patients think of when diagnosed with cancer, appropriate clothing centered around treatment can help ease their overall experience, according to an expert.

Dr. Elizabeth Chabner Thompson is no stranger to cancer. Not only does she have more than 20 years of experience of treating patients with cancer, but she also has been on the other side of the experience. In 2006, Thompson underwent a mastectomy due to a family history of breast cancer. When she woke up, she immediately noticed the surgical bra she was wearing. “What they put on me was in no way commensurate to what procedure they had performed,” she explains.

Although treatments and surgeries were continuously evolving, Thompson noted that advancements regarding the products that help patients recover were severely lacking. A few sketchbooks later, she founded Masthead Pink in 2011 with the Elizabeth Pink Surgical Bra. Since then, Thompson and Masthead Pink has expanded to offer several products, all designed to help patients in their recovery. Here, she spoke with CURE® on the role clothing plays during cancer treatment, as well as how the company’s bra helps women recover after surgery.

CURE®: How does clothing come into play for patients with cancer?

Thompson: [During my treatment,] I liked to wear vests, for example, because I had implants, and they made my chest feel cold at first. You don't always think about that before you go into your chemo, but bringing along things of comfort that are easy to put on and take off are important because you may need to shed layers quickly, or you may need to put more on. And especially with something like a cold cap — your whole body's freezing when you go through that, and a lot of people say that they need like a heavy weighted blanket.

There’s also so many things that patients have to worry about when they're going in for surgery, and the last thing that we want them to worry about is having to go to a store after. Especially in the age of COVID-19; you've got enough on your mind to protect yourself, let's just make this easy for the patient. What the physicians tell us they need and what the patients know that they have to have in order to really have an optimal recovery, the easiest thing is to have that at the time of surgery and so what we wanted to do (at Masthead Pink) is to create products that are really just part of the whole procedure from start to finish. The physician will just package the product, so the patient has an optimal trip going home.

Can you tell me more about the Elizabeth Pink Surgical Bra?

Everyone had trouble with their drains; everyone hated the scratchy fabric. The physicians were frustrated, but they didn’t have time to invent anything and then the patients didn’t know where to go. What’s really important to remember is that the first thing the patient notices when they wake up is that things are different. They might have tightness or a different sensation on their chest, but if they had a mastectomy or a procedure that involves incisions or drains, they are going to have discomfort when anything’s put on them unless it’s really designed with the procedures in mind.

The Elizabeth Pink Surgical Bra has really innovative apertures and a way of hanging your drains so you can really take care of yourself, and you do the work the physician wants you to do without thinking about it. A lot of the design is to enhance healing, enhance the patient’s ability to open and close things — especially when hands might be compromised, or shoulders might be tight. When the patient is on the table, and they wake up with it on, they just don’t have that worry on their mind. So that’s what we did with our bras. We have a draining system, and the most remarkable fabric that has been put into a surgical bra. It feels great against the skin, and it takes into the account the reality that when you have procedures, and your nerve endings are slightly altered you want the fabric against your skin to not really be noticeable. It just needs to feel good.

Would you say that this was a gap when it came to cancer treatment?

Yeah, I thought there was a whitespace. It was simply an issue of physicians having ideas, but oftentimes they're way too busy to execute those on a design side, nor do they have the tools to do that. At Masthead we were incredibly lucky because by a confluence of events, a group of women who work here all came from different spaces. We have a specialist and fabric and we have people that have had radiation, and they're answering the phones and they're part of the team. I think that when you have that kind of input, you have empathy, and you have people who really understand what's wrong with what the person has currently and how we can help give them something better.

I don't think that physicians ever intend to send patients home with suboptimal products and just don't want to think about it. I think really, doctors have the best intentions at all times, and they really want the patient to do well. It's fewer phone calls back to the office; it's fewer complications, but they don't have the time to research all of this. So, there was a place where a physician like myself who was willing to step out for a little while, and do three things at once, could really change things. That didn't happen fast and nothing's ever easy. It takes years.

What are the next steps?

At Masthead Pink, we often talk about staying to mission. We want to be really focused on the breast cancer space, but I know personally from answering the phone and reading emails and having discussions with other physicians that these gaps exist in other surgical specialties as well. For example, shoulder surgery — how do people put on bras after they have surgery on their shoulders? They really don't want to have anything tight on their actual shoulder itself, but they need support they've got any breast tissue it's really challenging, as well as for men after cardiac surgery we want to make sure that their wound doesn't come apart; that’s the essence. And that occurs frequently. We have ideas in the back of our minds for other patient-centered issues, but we have to focus on what we do right now and then listen. So, the next steps will come along as the company grows.

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