Watching her mother's cancer battle inspired this UC alumna to make a clothing line for survivors

Posted at 4:30 AM, Dec 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-04 06:58:22-05

CINCINNATI -- When Ann Elizabeth Sullivan went into surgery to have a tumor removed from her breast, her doctor predicted it would be fast and non-invasive.

Eight hours later, she came off the table minus one breast and 28 lymph nodes, a surgical drain implanted in one side to collect fluid accumulating where her tumor had been. 

She was bald, weak and uncomfortable, she said -- and the only clothes that could accommodate her new attachment were bath robes and men's button-up shirts. Her husband had to help her wrap up the tubes and pin them to the inside of the garments.

"I felt ill; I didn't feel like myself," Sullivan said. "I had tons of bandages, and it was just a very uncomfortable time. … Even 15 years out, it's that fresh in my mind."

While Sullivan was struggling through a difficult recovery, her 9-year-old daughter was watching. Megan Sullivan knew when she was accepted into the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning that she wanted to do something to help breast cancer survivors who returned home from the hospital and discovered their old clothes weren't made for their post-surgical bodies. 

"I wanted to know that the things I was designing were making a difference in society or filling some need," she said. "My mom having gone through (breast cancer), there was no other, better fit for me for something that hit so close to home."

Her fashion line, With Grace B. Bold, was financed via Kickstarter and designed with the wearer's convenience in mind. The first garment, a wrap shirt with a draped cowl neck and built-in drain pocket, is named the Ann Elizabeth after her mother. The second, the Eileen, omits the drain pocket but retains its graceful drape and ease of use. It's ready to go with a tie of one bow and a snap of one button, and the wearer doesn't have to pull anything over their head.

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Ann Sullivan said she "never dreamed" Megan remembered as much of her cancer treatment as she did, but she was overwhelmed by what her daughter created. 

"After all the chemo and radiation and being bald … It really takes its toll on your femininity and your identity as a woman," she said. "If I'd known that I had something as useful and beautiful as that to go through that difficult time, it would've made everything much easier."

With Grace B. Bold is currently delivering rewards to Kickstarter backers, meaning the Ann Elizabeth and the Eileen won't be available for mainstream consumers to purchase until around summer 2018. In the meantime, Sullivan said she plans to concentrate on launching the brand's website and fulfilling the promises she made to her earliest customers. Her story led her to create With Grace B. Bold; theirs led them to her, hoping for help.

"I can't put into words what that means to me," she said. "I'm personally connecting with people who have gone through this or know someone who's been through this, and that's a very, very personal thing to share with someone."