Julie Brand has come a long way from the emotional free fall of a breast cancer diagnosis to bringing new confidence to cancer sufferers with what she believes is the greatest work she has ever done.
Shortly after receiving news of a malignant cancer that required the surgical removal of her right breast, Julie underwent a reconstruction ‘gone wrong’.
“It was seven months of extreme discomfort. It was an awful time,” she says.
“When you have a cancer scare, you’re faced with death for the first time. After that, all you want to do is get on with your life.”
A “basic-looking” mastectomy bra with a weighted breast prosthesis was her next alternative. But it was uncomfortable, moving around when she bent over and losing its shape.
Julie couldn’t find anything better on the market.
With a background in glasswork art and a knack for making things, Julie fashioned her own 74-gram customised breast form.
Two years later, she has now supported about 150 breast cancer patients from across the region with their recovery from surgery.
Women aged 29 to 93 have been grateful for her personally designed lightweight polyurethane breast prosthesis alternative, Perfect Again breast forms, produced at her Portarlington studio.
Using technology similar to 3D printing, a hand-held LED device scans a woman’s post-operative chest landscape and their natural breast. The digital data then forms the inner and outer shape of the breast form.
“I wanted something that looked normal; something where I could look in the mirror and say, ‘Yep, that’s me’,” Julie says.
“I believe that craftwork is very precious and undervalued.
“I took one look at the weighted breast prostheses and just thought, ‘This is a man’s invention. It’s just wrong’. The reason I’ve been able to design my own customised breast forms is because I know what shape they need to be and how they are meant to feel against my body.
“I would never attempt to design a testicular prosthesis because I would have no idea what that’s meant to feel like.”
Julie’s initial studio appointments are first and foremost a personal consultation session during which she spends about one and a half hours building an understanding of her client and their cancer journey.
She then conducts a bra-fitting six to eight weeks after surgery once post-operative swelling has subsided, followed by a four-minute scan of the chest and existing breast.
The breast form is typically ready to collect in about three weeks and is generally 75 per cent lighter than alternatives in the market.
Between 2007 and 2011, 154 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in greater Geelong alone.
Janet Schultz, one of Julie’s earlier clients, has used a Perfect Again breast form for two years. The 63-year-old recalled her trauma following her mastectomy.
“The word cancer conjures up a terrible fear. It’s your first indicator of your mortality,” Janet says.
“I remember being fitted for my bra. I looked down at the empty cup and it’s a shocking thing … there’s something incredibly confronting about standing in front of the mirror naked with one breast.
“After surgery there was a horrible red scar and my chest was so black and blue; the bruising was disgusting. I felt mutilated.
“It was completely obscene. You’re of course happy and blessed to be rid of the cancer but you realise that your breast is your female shape – and it’s missing.”
Janet says Julie’s empathetic approach helped her feel at ease during a difficult time.
“Julie was so understanding because she had walked the journey before me and knew exactly where I was at and what I was feeling.
“The other prostheses on the market feel so different to the texture of a breast. They feel so awful and heavy and there’s no shape to it.
“Her breast forms stick to your skin, are completely hidden by the fabric of the bra and you forget that it’s there. It just feels like a part of you – it felt like I was whole again.”
Janet disagrees with the general opinion that breast prostheses should be produced with the same weight as the natural breast.
“People think that when you remove a 400-gram breast you need to replace it with a prosthesis of equal weight but in reality it’s not true,“ she contends.
“A natural breast is connected to the body with connective tissue, whereas a breast prosthesis is held up purely with a bra strap and so it feels really heavy. A 70-gram prosthesis feels completely natural and looks normal.”
In addition to the customised breast forms, Julie has a ready-to-wear range called Perfect Now, varying from size 32B to 42EE.
Since women are entitled to a $400 rebate every two years for an external breast form, the expense of a Perfect Now product is essentially free, with the items from the range costing an additional few hundred dollars out of pocket for a customised prosthesis.
Julie’s next challenge is determining how she’ll distribute the product nationwide. She’s already received interest from sites in Adelaide, Brisbane and Albury.
“I’d urge women to come in for a chat and understand the look and feel of the breast forms before getting a breast reconstruction. It’s something that I wish had been available for me.”
More details on Julie’s business are available at perfect-again.com.au. Julie also accepts donations to support women who cannot afford a suitable bra for their prosthesis.
Originally published at Geelong Coast Magazine.