Not Another Appointment: Inside a Mastectomy Boutique
The women who walk through the door of the Silhouette Mastectomy Boutique in Newport News, Virginia, have lost so much to cancer – their sense of security, their self-confidence, one or both of their breasts. Teresa Kelly, manager at the boutique, considers it her job and her privilege to give back to those women what cancer has taken from them. Every day she puts her 36 years of experience in the medical field to work, giving women who face the ravages of breast cancer the power to feel normal.
More than a job
Working at the mastectomy boutique is more than a job for Teresa, it’s a calling. She remembers the fear and isolation her mother felt when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1960s. When she works with women at the boutique she provides a relaxing, fun shopping experience to help them get the items they need that will also make them feel good about their bodies.
“All those years ago, women diagnosed with breast cancer did not have the support they do now,” Teresa said. “There were no stores like ours for them to buy prostheses and specially made clothing.”
Even though Teresa’s mother did not have a great deal of support or resources when she was diagnosed, she was a strong, determined woman who taught Teresa the meaning of surviving and thriving.
“The doctors gave my mother three months to live. She told them they weren’t the boss of her and she lived another 40 years,” Teresa said. “As a matter of fact, she outlived three of her doctors.”
Teresa acknowledges that doctors do the best they can but admits they don’t know everything. When she was in her 30s she underwent a lumpectomy to remove a benign lump. After watching her mother and going through pain herself, Teresa feels like she can be a trusted advisor to the women who come to the boutique.
“Most women don’t pull a blanket over their head and cry because they want to be strong for those around them,” Teresa said. “At the boutique they feel like they can let it all out because the employees understand what they are going through. We strive to make their new normal work for them. Most of the women want to make the most out of every moment post-diagnosis and we are able to put a positive spin on everything.”
Same war, different battle
Teresa has a long history of helping people regain what circumstances and illnesses have taken away. Prior to working at the boutique, she worked at an orthotics and prosthetics facility where she fitted men and women who had lost limbs with prostheses.
“When I worked at that facility it was more of a medical environment,” Teresa recalls. “People were there for all sorts of reasons. For example, a patient may have lost a hand, and once I fitted a nurse with a prosthetic index finger. The boutique’s atmosphere is different because it’s not another medical appointment. The women I work with are shoppers, not patients.”
Teresa pointed out that there are many similarities between the work she did at the orthotics and prosthetics facility and the boutique. In both cases she worked with individuals who had lost a body part and were learning how to live life differently. The boutique, however, offers an array of products and options for both cancer patients and non-cancer patients.
“Some of our customers come in for non-cancer related purchases,” Teresa said. “Others come in for custom-made wigs as a result of cancer treatments or unrelated conditions like alopecia, which causes hair to thin or fall out completely. We also sell bras that are more comfortable for a person who has had open-heart surgery or breast augmentation surgery to wear.”
A fellow survivor
Teresa knows better than most just how precious every moment of life truly is. In addition to her lumpectomy, she had surgery to clear a 98% blockage in her heart. She also had breast reduction surgery, going from an F cup to a C+ cup size.
“I know what women who have had reconstruction are going through,” Teresa said. “I visited vendors to try on bras and every one was painful. The exact spots where I had had cuts were where the bra would rub against my skin. There was no bra that was comfy for a woman post-reconstruction so I worked with vendors to design a bra that those women could wear and enjoy.”
Teresa makes it her goal to help every woman who walks through her door, whether she is in her 20s or her 80s. She knows that every woman is different and wants to make sure each one has a great experience at the boutique. She researches the newest prosthetic items, clothing, and wigs and keeps up-to-date on all of the new trends. She and her staff members are trained fitters who regularly participate in continuing education.
A healthy dose of laughter
Teresa has a treasure trove of amusing anecdotes from her years working at the boutique. She laughed when she told the story of the woman who had taken her breast prostheses out prior to exercising at the gym and placed them in a brown paper bag in her truck. Later she thought she had lost her boobs at the gym when, in reality, her son had borrowed her truck and tossed the bag into the backseat, not realizing that it contained his mother’s fake bosoms.
Then there was the older woman who had had a mastectomy 20 years prior but had never been fitted for a prosthetic. After her husband passed away she started attending a singles group and met a man. She came to Teresa because she didn’t want her new beau to discover what she kept in her bra in place of her breast – a sock filled with dried beans.
“When I fitted her with a prosthetic I told her she needed to tell her new boyfriend that she was a breast cancer survivor and that she had had a mastectomy,” Teresa said. “Later she told me that as she told him, he laughed and clapped his hands. When she finished, he told her, ‘It’s Ok. I’m an ass man!’”
Her favorite part of her job is when she sees the expression on the face of a woman who has been correctly fitted with a breast form.
“There is such a look of relief,” she said. “The right bra and forms can make all the difference. I love helping women regain their self-esteem and realize they are beautiful even in the face of illness.”
Teresa travels to different hospitals and clinics with her rolling suitcase to show women the latest in mastectomy designs and fashions. She also works with several support groups in the area, including Beyond Boobs!
“There was instant love when I met [Beyond Boobs!] co-founder Mary Beth,” Teresa said. “It is so different to have a group for younger women. I have met several of the members and it’s like having family, church, best friends, and a support group all rolled up into one.”
Teresa is a Beyond Boobs! Bustier and supports as many of the group’s fund-raising activities as she can, including events involving the Old Dudes Motorcycle Club.
“What I really love about Beyond Boobs! is that they care about people unconditionally. They realize that we are all fighting the same disease in different ways,” Teresa said.
The Silhouette Mastectomy Boutique is located at 12715-V Warwick Blvd. in Newport News. All of the staff members are trained, compassionate fitters. Many insurance plans cover the cost of items the boutique sells. If you bring a current prescription from your doctor with you to your fitting, the staff can call and determine coverage. If you would like to schedule a fitting session with one of the boutique fitters, call them at 757-930-0139.