‘I felt like a woman’: Partnership helps breast cancer survivors find the right fit

A woman with a yellow bow in her hair stands in front of a wall stocked with bras.
Fitter Brittni Montgomery in the bra section of La Femme in River Ranch. Staff photo by Alena Maschke

Visitors might be tempted to overlook the small room at the end of a hallway at Miles Perret Cancer Services. Next door, wigs in all colors and styles sit between mirrors propped on vanities, ready to conceal the hair loss most commonly associated with the disease. 

But it’s that room, with stocked shelves covering all four walls floor to ceiling, where a new collaboration is taking shape. It’s one that, just like the hairpieces next door, aims to make women who have beaten cancer feel whole again, and more like themselves.

Breast cancer is the most common new cancer diagnosis in the country and the second most common cancer death. But for the women who beat it, the journey doesn’t end there. Mastectomy, or the removal of at least one breast, is the chosen or recommended route for half of all breast cancer patients, leaving them with a body that is visibly changed forever. 

A new collaboration between Miles Perret Cancer Services and local lingerie store La Femme is helping breast cancer survivors acclimate and adjust to life in their changed bodies, by providing prosthetics and bras, free of charge.

“So much of a woman’s confidence and femininity lies in the way their silhouette looks, and remembering and feeling like it’s their body again,” said La Femme owner Meaghan Savoy. When calling clients, Savoy and her team usually tell them to bring along their favorite shirt from pre-surgery days, so they can see the effects of having a well-fitted replacement.

A woman holds a bra up by the straps inside a lingerie store.
La Femme owner Meaghan McCarron Savoy filing through bras at her store in River Ranch. Staff photo by Alena Maschke

And it’s not just aesthetics. Patients’ bodies, from their muscles to their joints and bones, are accustomed to the weight of their natural breasts. The loss of breast tissue as a result of surgery or radiation can throw that carefully tuned system off-balance.

“It is so important for the weighted forms to be on your body as quickly as possible so that you maintain balance and strength, so you don’t create further pain,” Savoy explained.

But that comfort and confidence comes at a cost. Prosthetics cost between $100 and  $500 a piece — two of which would be needed in the case of a double mastectomy — and bras retail for another $30-50, meaning one appointment can easily come out to a $1,000 bill. For breast cancer survivors without insurance or those who haven’t yet met their deductible, this presents a significant burden, in addition to the high cost of cancer treatment they already had to shoulder.

The process is also often arduous for patients and businesses providing fitting and retail services to breast cancer survivors. That difficulty was one of the reasons Savoy decided to no longer offer those services at her stores, before the opportunity to collaborate with Miles Perret presented itself.

“Insurance put my best fitter in an office all day, on the phone, on hold,” Savoy said of Brittni Montgomery, who has been fitting customers for their prosthetics and bras at the store for four years, taking measurements, testing out weights and, at times, providing emotional support.

A woman's hand touches a prosthetic breast inlay.
Fitter Brittni Montgomery showcasing a prosthetic inside the fitting room at Miles Perret Cancer Services. Staff photo by Alena Maschke

The diversity of customers at her store presented another challenge. “It wasn’t always appropriate for a woman who was going through something, who had been through a cancer journey, to be next door to a girl getting her first fitting.” Or a loud bachelorette party, she added.

In the new setting, a calm space where other cancer patients and survivors come to do yoga, pick out a wig or a book from the organization’s library, Montgomery can provide her services in a more appropriate setting. 

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Lindsy Jeanminette, 40, was the first client to walk into that room at the end of the hallway on Tuesday morning, the first day of fittings La Femme held at the cancer center. 

“Going into it, I was nervous, because I thought: I’m not going to find one that’s gonna fit,” said Jeanminette, who went through two surgeries, four rounds of chemo and 30 rounds of radiation in less than two years, of her expectations for the fitting.

When she came out, she immediately sent a text message to Savoy, packed with compliments, joy and requests for a raise for the fitter. “She eased my mind and she made me feel really comfortable,” Jeanminette said. “I didn’t feel like a science project, I felt like a woman.”

An older man, a young man, a woman and a dog stand in front of a tree.
Breast cancer survivor Lindsy Jeanminette with her father, Whitney Jeanminette, her son, DeAnte Howard, and family dog Jezzie in the yard of the family home in Jeanerette, LA, on September 15, 2023.

Acknowledging the hardships of not looking like your old self, while also providing comfort and reassurance is one of the many fine lines that Montgomery, the fitter, has to walk. 

“They’re hearing ‘deformity’ all the time at the doctor’s office,” she said, noting that she’s careful not to dismiss her clients’ qualms with scars and lumps that weren’t there before, while also trying to help them love their new bodies. “I just try to normalize.”

Being open about how important it is to feel good in their own skin, to feel beautiful, can sometimes be a challenge in and of itself for her clients, Montgomery pointed out. “Some people feel like they should just be happy that they survived,” she said. 

The way we talk about cancer, the focus on beating the disease, with little regard for its aftermath, serves to reinforce that feeling. “It’s not the end, you can still feel like you want to look great,” Montgomery said. “Women’s journeys, they’re still going.”

Woman pulls box from a shelf.
Fitter Brittni Montgomery Pulling a bra from the shelves of the fitting room at the Miles Perret Cancer Services. Staff photo by Alena Maschke.

For this new collaboration, the journey is just beginning. Hosting monthly fittings, as is the current schedule, means keeping thousands of dollars of merchandise stocked for each appointment. 

For now, Montgomery is working with products purchased at a discount by Miles Perret from La Femme when the store decided to liquidate its cancer-specific product lines. The lingerie store is donating her time as a fitter, but is hoping to be able to contribute to fundraising efforts and product purchases in the future, according to Savoy. There’s talk of a breast-shaped candle by a local candlemaker.

For those eager to contribute, La Femme is hosting a special “Shop for a Cause” event at the end of the month, the proceeds of which will go toward the budget for buying new products to be fitted and distributed to Miles Perret clients.