Get Ready with Me | PINK Breast Cancer Awareness // Secret Project, Cheating, Holiday Collections
"I Cheated Breast Cancer"
We are sitting in the lobby of the Peabody Orlando hotel, which is playing host to C4YW, the annual Conference for Young Women Affected by Breast Cancer. Brett is here to showcase Veronica Brett, the swimwear collection for breast-surgery survivors that she named after an aunt who died from the disease at age 44. "This one is my favorite," she explains excitedly, holding up a simple but very chic black bandeau. "It has pockets in it for breast forms, and there's a convertible halter to hide scars if you need more coverage." Elegant and sexy, the looks are definitely not your grandmother's postmastectomy suits, yet all are strategically designed to fit reconstructed or prosthetic breasts.
When Brett lounges by the pool, she wears Veronica Brett too. But she has never had breast cancer. She is one of a growing number of "previvors," women at high risk who have surgery before any cancer has the chance to develop. She considers herself lucky because she didn't have to deal with chemo, radiation, or tamoxifen and she was able to make an informed decision.
As Brett was growing up, cancer was always in the family on her father's side. She saw him lose three of his sisters to breast cancer, including Veronica. In 1998, Brett's sister Regina learned she had the disease. "She was devastated," remembers Brett. After her sister, three cousins were diagnosed, and in 2002, Brett tested positive for a BRCA1 gene mutation and was told she had an 85 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and a 55 percent chance of ovarian cancer.
Brett's suits are made of thick, supportive fabric with hidden pockets for breast forms. Here, a one shoulder bikini (3) and a halter one-piece, (8); veronicabrett.com.
Brett went to see a breast surgeon, whose first words on learning her family history were "Why do you still have your breasts?" An MRI revealed multiple suspicious areas needing further investigation, and Brett spent an agonizing summer waiting to get a biopsy and then the result. In August, she finally found out: She didn't have cancer. But due to her high-risk status, she knew she'd have to have MRIs, and possibly biopsies, regularly for the rest of her life. She realized she didn't want to be forever worrying about whether she had cancer and felt she needed to do whatever she could to make sure she didn't get the disease. "My son was one and a half that summer. My husband is eight years older than me. I saw my aunt die, leaving six kids, and I thought, I have to be around for this little guy." She decided to have both breasts removed.
Brett's husband fully supported her decision. "At first, he had said, 'Why would you want to have healthy breasts removed?' But by August, he was like, 'Just get rid of them. As long as you're alive and healthy, that's fine.'"
The ongoing process of surveillance proves intolerable for many women. Laurie Kirstein, a breast surgical oncologist who specializes in treating high-risk patients and performs risk-reducing surgeries at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, says, "My experience with women who are going every six months for screening is that they are anxious the month beforehand, anxious waiting for results, and then calm for only about six weeks. Eventually, they can't stand it anymore." In fact, 36 percent of U.S. women who don't have cancer but are at high risk of developing the disease due to a BRCA mutation choose, like Brett, to have prophylactic mastectomies. Karen Ott, a certified genetic counselor at New York's Beth Israel Medical Center, says Brett's mind-set isn't unusual. "Women who've been personally affected by the disease view their breasts very differently. I've had patients who've lost their mom say, 'I would never want anyone to go through that. I'm willing to remove my breasts; they mean nothing.'"
Brett saw a therapist before her surgery, which made coming to terms with her decision easier. "He helped me realize that I wasn't defined by my breasts and that I could lose them and still be who I am." She adds that it also helped that she would be having reconstruction. In January 2003, at age 39, Brett had a bilateral mastectomy with implant reconstruction. While she confesses she did mourn her breasts a little, she was more focused on the everyday. Her son, Harry, was just two, and one of her biggest concerns was that she wasn't able to pick him up during her recovery.
What she wasn't prepared for was other people's reactions. "I didn't have breast cancer, and a lot of people didn't understand why I'd done the surgery. They thought I was a hypochondriac. But it's different when it's your breasts, your family, and you've seen people die from it."
Brett found having her ovaries removed, in May 2007, much more difficult to deal with. While she and her husband had already decided not to have any more children, knowing she was closing that window permanently was painful. "The act of having your ovaries out—it's final and was very hard for me. I grew up in a family of 11."
The idea for the Veronica Brett swimsuit collection was born on a road trip later that year. Brett was traveling with Regina and niece Gabe. Gabe, just 29, was preparing for her own risk-reducing mastectomy, having inherited a BRCA1 mutation from her mother. She was at peace with her surgery decision but upset by her limited swimwear options. Brett thought about her own issues: Most postsurgical swimsuits were matronly and marketed as medical apparel. An architect since 1990, Brett had been looking to transition to something more art related. Once home, she told her husband she'd found her mission. She wanted to design sexy, flattering swimwear for women who'd had mastectomies—a fashion brand rather than a medical one.
Veronica Brett was launched in 2010. The collection comprises bandeau, wrap, and halter one-pieces, plus one-shoulder and bandeau bikinis. Suits are available in sizes 2 to 16 and come in five colors, including black. ("It was so difficult to find anything in black!" says Brett.) New styles are planned for 2012. Brett hears from satisfied—and emotional—customers all the time. "I get these sweet e-mails where they tell me, 'I got your swimsuit and I just burst into tears. I haven't felt this way in 23 years.' And you think, Oh, my gosh, it's just a swimsuit.
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