Bellingham resident Laura Dewitt had a double mastectomy in 2009 and began treatment for aggressive stage III breast cancer. Though she had a life-threatening illness, she still wanted to wear her normal clothes.
So, like many women who have mastectomies, she got breast forms — prosthetic breasts that fit inside a pocketed bra.
“To wear something other than oversized sweatshirts or sweaters — it just helps bring some normalcy to your life in a time that can be very tumultuous,” Dewitt said. “It’s a very personal product and it’s an emotional product.”
Breast forms aren’t something you just pick off the shelf of a store, Dewitt said. Breasts and chest walls come in all different shapes, sizes and weights. It takes a specialist to match people with the right breast form.
Dewitt had two options for getting fitted for breast forms. She could drive to Seattle to get fitted in a boutique store that specializes in breast forms and post-mastectomy products, or go to Skagit County and get fitted at a store that also sells wheelchairs, crutches and other medical equipment.
She chose to go to Seattle.
“Breast forms really don’t fit in with that type of medical equipment,” Dewitt said. “You wear it on your body. It becomes a part of you.”
For Dewitt, the 90-mile drive to Seattle wasn’t just time-consuming, it was a reminder of her illness, she said. A chore that used to be easy now required most of a day.
The experience demonstrated the need for a closer option. So in November, Dewitt and business partner Sarah McCown opened a boutique in Bellingham for breast form fittings and other post-mastectomy products. Their store, called Allies, is at 1337 Lincoln St.
“The need for what they provide has been here forever,” said Carol Brumet, outreach coordinator for the Cancer Center at PeaceHealth’s St. Joseph Medical Center. “It’s one of those things that you won’t pay attention to unless you need it, but if you are that person who needs it this is going to mean everything.”
Dewitt and McCown want to do more than offer a local alternative to the Seattle and Skagit shops. They want to make their customers feel sexy, rather than like they’re taking care of a medical need, they said.
They hope to make the experience of buying an intimate undergarment as close as possible to the way it was before surgery. Woman can get fitted, get their products, and get out of the shop, while Dewitt and McCown take care of insurance paperwork.
“To shop for a bra should be a Saturday errand, not an all day trek,” Dewitt said. “It’s really important to make it easy and comfortable. We want to make it a fun experience. When you come here you get to dress yourself up. You get to feel special. It’s a pampering thing.”
Allies carries a range of products for women who have had mastectomies. That includes forms for tissue expansion, which expand skin and muscle tissue in preparation for reconstructive surgery, silicone and contact silicone breast prostheses, pocketed bras, and post-mastectomy camisoles, which are worn after surgery and have drains for removing extra fluid.
DeWitt waited until now to open Allies because she wanted to be cancer-free for five years before starting her business.
“Up until then you really feel on the edge,” Dewitt said. “After that it still can happen but your percentage gets better.”
That timing worked well for Sarah McCown of Mount Vernon, who started fitting clients for breast forms eight years ago in Skagit County. McCown quit her job in 2012 to spend more time with her young family. Her kids are 6, 4 and 2.
McCown wanted to open a boutique store, but she didn’t want to do it on her own. Dewitt got her name from a mutual friend and called her about opening the shop together. Brumet, the outreach coordinator at PeaceHealth, said she had been trying to get McCown, to open a shop in Bellingham for years.
The two met and realized they had a similar vision for the store, McCown said.
Their market research showed that the business is viable, but they’re prepared for a slow start, and they built that possibility into their business model, Dewitt said.
McCown is a certified mastectomy fitter and Dewitt is working toward getting certified, which requires 500 hours of supervised fitting.
So far Dewitt and McCown are accepting clients by appointment seven days a week, and working toward getting enough clients to become accredited with the American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics and Pedorthics. Certification will streamline the process for dealing with insurance and medicare suppliers.
Currently, clients have to pay upfront, and can be reimbursed by their insurance companies later, but that’s not guaranteed, Dewitt said. In four to six months, Dewitt and McCown hope to have regular hours while still offering appointments outside of normal hours.
After her first few fittings back at work at Allies, McCown remembered why she loves the work. It helps women regain confidence in their bodies, she said.
“To be able to give that to somebody is a really unique experience,” McCown said. “My favorite fitting I’ve ever done was for an 85-year-old lady. I put her form on and she hadn’t had a properly fitting bra or prosthesis and she looks in the mirror and she goes, ‘I’m sexy again.’ It just makes you smile.”