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.
I (pictured left) 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”.
My Family History
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 the 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 wheels turning. She wanted something beautiful, sexy and elegant, which could
also accommodate her thick-strapped bra and breast forms. 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.
My Design Journey
I came back to New York, and that Monday morning 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, who also had a mastectomy and had trouble finding a flattering swimsuit, I set out to create
something to help both 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.
Where to Begin
Deciding where to begin, in early 2008, I had The Monogram Group, Chicago, conduct an online survey of breast
cancer survivors from across the United States. Among the startling findings – of over 400 women surveyed, 0%
were satisfied with the post-mastectomy swimsuits on the market. I had my answer.
I made the first swimsuit 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.
Feeling Sexy and Confident Again
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 around 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…!” She was thrilled, not only to have a swimsuit in which she felt confident and sexy again, but that I, her little sister,
put so much time and effort into creating something that might help her feel better about herself.
Since then, I’ve worked with more pattern-makers, 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.
Life Never Looked Sexier!
The brand, which will debut 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, elegant, intelligent, dignified, 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”.