Liz Hurley says two friends found breast cancer after her campaign
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Ms Jackman had a brush with breast cancer early on in her life, watching her mother learn to live and regain her confidence after her mastectomies. Finding that the products on offer didn’t fit her mothers needs at all, she decided to take the breast prosthesis industry by storm, revolutionising what it means to feel beautiful after a mastectomy.
Every 10 minutes a woman in the UK is diagnosed with breast cancer and around 18,000 mastectomies are performed on the NHS every year.
Yet the products offered by the traditional market to help women recover their bodies and their self-esteem after this major operation is almost pitiful as little to no innovation has taken place in this industry since the 1960’s.
As a consequence, Ms Jackson took matters into her own hands, creating a business to better the lives of breast cancer survivors across the UK.
Ms Jackman originally founded Boost Innovations as a side hustle and has only recently been able to go full-time into the business after earning £17,000 last year, creating open-structured, colourful and comfortable alternatives to the traditional gel breast prosthesis.
She explained that after her mother was provided with one of these gel prosthesis after her single mastectomy which was not to her liking at all: “It made her sweaty, it was hot and was uncomfortable against her scar. It was heavy, and pulled her clothing down when she moved. In the end, she refused to wear it.”
Searching to find a comfortable alternative for her mother, she discovered that many women felt the same way about their prosthesis: “The market clearly needed disrupting and I felt that if I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I needed to create it myself.”
Boost Innovation started as a side hustle while Ms Jackman was working in the heritage and museum sector but it wasn’t until she won BLOOM Gin’s Passion Projects initiative, providing a much needed £20,000 investment for the business, that she was able to quit her job and focus on Boost full-time.
In the beginning, not many understood Ms Jackman’s mission, questioning why an item that no one sees should be colourful or aesthetically pleasing, to which she said: “Because the woman who wears it will see it every day, and she is the most important person of all. People assumed that we’d want to make the breast form realistic using fleshy colours, rather than have it be something artistic.”
Ms Jackman explained that traditional prosthesis try to hide the fact that a woman has had a mastectomy, which leaves a dull, flesh-coloured and heavy prosthesis for these women going through difficult circumstances.
She added: “Options out there for women of colour are dismal, with many products only providing three different skin tones, so we definitely wanted to make sure our products were fully inclusive. We don’t try and imitate skin tone because we are not replacing the breast that has been lost; we are offering shape and comfort under your clothing.”
Changing the lives of women across the UK is not the only impact Boost Innovations has had, as Ms Jackman was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune condition at 17 and told she would never be able to work full-time.
“By running my business, I have brought something to the world that I can be proud of. Building the business alongside my heritage career and getting to the point where I could make this my full-time job has been a dream come true. My mum supported me through my illness, and she always said, ‘You can’ every time someone told me ‘You can’t’. The fact that through Boost, I can support her and countless other women who have experienced breast cancer, means everything to me.”
Another entrepreneur, Eleanor Howie, has had a similar experience with breast cancer and the lawyer-turned-academic-turned-entrepreneur choose to take on the underwear industry, explaining the importance of self-esteem after she underwent a mastectomy herself.
As a little girl Ms Howie watched her mother struggle with breast cancer not once but twice, undergoing a single mastectomy while she was pregnant with Ms Howie’s little sister.
Several years later, Ms Howie’s aunt was also diagnosed at the age of 31 but would unfortunately pass away a few years later due to secondary breast cancer, which is when breast cancer cells spread outside of the breast.
Suspecting there was a genetic link, and worried by the young age of diagnoses for both her mother and her aunt, Ms Howie and her mother went for genetic testing when it first became available.
Unfortunately, at the age of 19 Ms Howie discovered that her and her mother carried a mutation of the BRCA1 gene which dramatically increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer and she immediately began contemplating preventative measures.
At the age of 24 Ms Howie underwent a preventative double mastectomy: “It was the best decision. I know it probably saved my life. But it still took its emotional toll. And I really struggled with my body image and my self esteem for many years. This year is the 10th anniversary of my mastectomy and I am only now starting to feel like me again!”
Understanding first-hand the trials and tribulations of women who have had this operation, Ms Howie was determined to disrupt the lingerie industry: “I’ve cried many tears in changing rooms! I felt like I’d been abandoned by the lingerie industry. As if they had written off women like me as no longer sexy. And that’s what lead to my ‘lightbulb’ moment.”
Not being able to find any suitable underwear for her wedding was the final straw for Ms Howie and she set-up Valiant Lingerie in early 2020 providing much needed lingerie made to accommodate women who have undergone any form of breast cancer surgery.
Launching their first collection just before the third lockdown, Ms Howie has seen unprecedented success despite the global pandemic, showing just how underrepresented this customer base was in the fashion industry.
She explained that the structure of a normal bra simply does not work for post-mastectomy women as they often can’t wear underwire, require soft fabrics and different cup forms to accommodate breast prothesis and any asymmetry as well as designs that cater for the risk of lymphoedema that these women face.
“When I was designing, it was of the utmost importance that the designs were sensitive and accommodated each of the points above. But it was equally important that the designs looked amazing too; that they didn’t just look functional. And that really is our unique selling point; beautiful post-surgery bras designed for post-surgery bodies by someone who has experience it themselves.”
Seeing the success of her bras, Ms Howie expanded the Valiant Lingerie line to include knickers as some reconstruction surgeries leave a sensitive scar near the bikini line.
Having received £11,500 in grants and loans to develop the first collection, Ms Howie commented that the business is nearing full recuperation of these costs and this autumn she has become a Start Up Loan Ambassador for the British Business Bank.
Valiant Lingerie will also be extending out of the underwear industry with their newly announced swimwear line now in development.
“I think for a long time these issues weren’t spoken about and now it feels as though we’re in an exciting period when there is growing awareness of inclusivity and diversity which is amazing.”
With breast cancer being the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women around the world, Ms Howie added that they should be a lot more aware of breast cancer symptoms and “in touch with your normal”.
Self-checking and understanding what is normal for oneself can often lead to early detection of breast cancer, increasing the chances of successful and non-invasive treatment.
She also noted that women going to the doctors should not feel overly anxious if they are referred to a breast cancer clinic as it does not always mean one actually has cancer.
“In fact, the vast majority of people seen at breast clinics will not have cancer) but it is important to be assessed by experts. Breast Cancer Now have some great resources explaining what to expect at a breast clinic appointment and they also have a helpline if you have any queries about this or about breast health in general.”
And now that genetic testing is more easily accessible than when it first came out, Ms Howie encourages women to get tested for the BRCA1 mutation, saying: “This is a difficult thing to learn about yourself but in my case I found it empowered me to explore my options for reducing my risk and this is why I had a double mastectomy. There is a new charity called BRCA+ Chat and their mission is support people navigating genetic testing.”
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