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From challenge comes grace: UC alumna's clothing line offers fashion, function during cancer battle

Post-mastectomy collection launches Kickstarter
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Oct 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-20 07:23:48-04

CINCINNATI -- Inspired by her mother's battle with breast cancer, a University of Cincinnati graduate has designed a clothing collection for women who have undergone a mastectomy.

The collection, With Grace B. Bold, launched Oct. 1 to coincide with the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It was designed by Megan Sullivan, a graduate of UC's College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP).

Megan, now 25, began working on her concept during her third year as an undergraduate student at UC after recognizing the struggle women face during breast cancer treatment. Her clothing line conceals the drainage system they wear while recovering from a mastectomy.

Megan's mother, Ann Sullivan, was diagnosed at 42 with stage 3 breast cancer that spread to her lymph nodes. Megan, who was 9 at the time, said the experience has had a lasting impact on her and her family.

"Her surgery and recovery were extremely strenuous," she said. "I decided, in what seemed to be an epiphany moment, that I wanted to dedicate my career and life to helping women throughout this time (when) their self-identity and style seem completely diminished."

The name of the collection was inspired by her mom, whose name means "grace." All garments will be named after women Megan has known who have battled breast cancer.

The need for the collection

For her prototype garment -- a long-sleeve blouse named "the Ann Elizabeth" after her mother -- Megan designed a draping neckline around the bust and a flowing bodice made of a lightweight bamboo cotton. The bamboo cotton is easy to machine wash and dry and is not prone to wrinkles, said Megan, who received her undergraduate degree from DAAP in 2015 and her master's in 2016.

The garment wraps so a woman does not have to pull it over her head, and it is easy to secure when dressing -- first, with a tie on the interior, then with two snaps on the opposite shoulder.
A small pocket inside the garment at the hip — made of cotton with a hint of spandex to add stretch — holds the drain. The wrapped blouse conceals the drainage system.

Not surprisingly, Ann, now 59, is a big fan of the clothing.

"If I could've found something as beautiful and functional to wear during this phase of my treatment and recovery, I would've felt so much better physically and emotionally," she said.

Ann had limited mobility during her recovery, and Megan recalled searching for clothing that buttoned or zipped. A lot of women wear men's button-up shirts because they are easy to get on and off. Some wear sports bra-style undergarments with a hook for the pump or utility-style belts with Velcro at the waist and pockets for the pump, Megan said. Her mother felt those were not comfortable.

"I pinned the drain and tube into my robe with a safety pin," Ann said. "It wasn't a great solution, and it made my recovery even more frustrating." 

Megan's goal is to offer clothing that makes women feel like they still have some control over their situation.

Ashleigh Sullivan has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the creation of other clothing pieces in her line. (Photo by Ashleigh Pierce)

Ann said her self-image was greatly affected after her diagnosis.

"So many things about me as a woman were going to change," she said. "I felt very uncomfortable having to find solutions to the clothing challenges I faced."

It's not a ‘recovery brand'

The collection also features garments without a drain pocket for women who are not breast cancer patients but want to support the brand.

Megan said she didn't want to create a brand just for women in recovery.

"Women, a lot of times, stray away from buying products from ‘recovery' brands just because they don't want to be ‘recovering,' " she said. "There is a stigma around being in recovery. You just want to be back to normal as quickly as possible."

In addition to her prototype long-sleeve garment, Megan has an entire collection waiting to be made. From skirts to short-sleeve blouses and cardigans, there's a bit of everything to accommodate the styles and preferences of many women.

This shirt is easy to put on and take off and features a pouch inside to hold a post-mastectomy drainage system. (Photo by Ashleigh Pierce)

She hopes to fund her collection by raising $35,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, which launched Oct. 1 to coincide with her brand debut. During the campaign, which is active until Nov. 12, the long-sleeve garment will cost $98, about 20 percent less than what it will cost after the campaign.

The long-sleeve garment with a drain pocket (the Ann Elizabeth) and without (the Eileen, after her aunt) will be for sale on the Kickstarter site. Both garments will be available in warm grey and true black.

The price range of the collection is in line with similar clothing on the market, Megan said. A manufacturer in Minnesota will produce the collection.

Ann hopes the With Grace B. Bold line will benefit women faced with finding clothing during an already physically and emotionally demanding time.

"The need is great," she said. "There just aren't many options that are stylish and comfortable."

Ashleigh Pierce wrote this story for the Media Bureau class at the University of Cincinnati. The class produces multimedia stories for syndication to local news outlets.