The Women’s Health Boutique: Restoring a Positive Self Image After Breast Cancer
At age 17, when Elisa Lawson worked in the bra department at Stewart’s Department Store in Baltimore, little did she know her experience would lead her to help hundreds of women on Maryland’s Eastern Shore recovering from breast cancer. As a Certified Prosthesis Specialist and owner of The Women’s Health Boutique, Lawson provides breast cancer patients across multiple health care systems with post-mastectomy garments, prosthetics and swimwear, including at University of Maryland Shore Regional Health’s Clark Comprehensive Breast Center in Easton.
Lawson learned about the prosthetic industry when she decided to go back to work in the lingerie department at Nordstrom after raising her family. In 1999, when she decided to start her own enterprise, she was able to connect with a prominent breast surgeon who offered space at Mercy Medical Center’s breast center to launch her prosthetics and bra business.
In 2004, a sales representative commented to Lawson it was a shame that the women on the Eastern Shore didn’t have access to her services. Lawson soon reached out and made arrangements with breast surgeon Susan T. Forlifer, MD (now retired) at UM Shore Medical Center at Easton to begin serving women on the Shore.
“For six years, I packed my car with every size bra and prosthetic when I came to Easton once a month for appointments,” Lawson said. “Today, I have dedicated space here in the building with a dressing room where I can display all my products.”
Lawson loves working with clients on the Shore and calls them “some of the most appreciative women” she has ever met. Patients are referred to the Boutique by local providers and the staff of the Clark Comprehensive Breast Center, and also by past clients who have been served by the Boutique.
“Breast cancer can be disfiguring -- even a lumpectomy and radiation can change the look of the breast and women are conscious of that,” Lawson said. “They may wear baggier clothes and sometimes don’t even want to leave the house. But the way my industry has changed over 20 years is amazing. There are now strapless bras, sports bras, and padded bras – bras in all shapes, colors, and sizes and ‘forward fashion’ swimwear.”
In addition to the bra styles evolving, the breast forms or prosthetics have changed as well, using lighter silicones and more snug fits. There is also a custom breast form, which allows the manufacturer to get the most accurate fit, better skin tone matches, the lightest weight and a more accurate fit for women with more challenging chest walls.
“Custom breast forms are helpful to larger women because the custom foam reduces the weight of the prosthetic by half. They can also be beneficial for women who have experienced failed reconstruction or more radical surgeries, or just want a more personal breast form,” Lawson said.
An iPad scanner now creates a virtual body cast of the chest wall of a patient to provide the necessary dimensions to form the custom breast form. “Patients can customize their prosthetic, even choosing the skin tone,” Lawson said. “The texture of the breast form has a tackiness to it, so it fits like a puzzle to the chest wall, which keeps the prosthetic in place. A good fitting bra adds stability as well.”
There is a line of products covered by insurance for breast cancer survivors and Lawson helps women get quality products within the boundaries of their insurance benefits. Because breast reconstruction surgery is chosen by many breast cancer patients, the Boutique also provides temporary products for women in transition, whether they are awaiting surgery or are having an implant replaced.
Kirsten Sensbach of Grasonville, a two-time breast cancer survivor, moved to the Eastern Shore from Pennsylvania five years ago as she was finishing her last chemotherapy treatment.
“In addition to the surgical changes, I have an asymmetrical trunk caused by a spinal curvature, which challenged my prosthetic fitting,” Sensbach said. “It was difficult getting the form to mold to my body and be comfortable. Elisa was patient with me through the process and took time to provide a personal touch and customize my prosthetic. With beautiful product choices for someone my age, she got to know me and what might fit me, plus she has a flair for fashion.”
“There are lots of new options available today for women recovering from cancer surgeries,” said Lawson. “Trying some of the new products helps you feel comfortable and happy with how you look in your clothing. Getting something closer to how you looked before cancer makes you feel good.”
Reflecting on her business journey, Lawson said, “I love what I do. When I fit clients with the right prosthetic and bra, they see their original self in the mirror. Some never imagined that they could look good again, and for so many, looking their best is an important step toward completion of the breast cancer journey. I think the services offered in the Women’s Health Boutique makes the Clark Comprehensive Breast Center complete.”