Life was rolling along just fine for British-born Stephanie Devine. Leading a finance headhunting business after having moved to Australia in 2001, her career had gone from strength to strength. But the discovery of a lump in her breast in 2006 was the start of a whole new chapter.
“I went straight to my doctor,” she says of that life-transforming moment. “I had an ultrasound and core needle biopsy immediately. But at the end of the week I was given the all clear.”
Despite the good news, the “alien” lump troubled Stephanie. Wanting to be extra sure, she booked an appointment with a surgeon who conducted another more in-depth needle biopsy, “just in case”. Later when he rang with the results, the news wasn’t good. It was cancer after all.
“I was really fit and healthy, I was vegetarian, I exercised regularly – this wasn’t supposed to happen,” she says.
She was told that she would probably not be able to have kids due to the effects of the chemo she needed to undergo. Devastated, Stephanie headed to her local department store, armed with a list of all the things she would need in preparation for surgery.
“I was told to get a cotton bra with no underwire. But the only bras without underwire were sports bras in shiny materials or maternity bras. It was so confronting to see all those beautiful maternity bras, having just been told that post-chemo I would never have children,” she says.
The next seven months were filled with endless sessions of intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy. “It was the worst year of my life,” she says. “I didn’t recognise myself in the mirror anymore – I felt like a long streak of flesh-coloured nothing.”
So in search of some much-needed rest after finishing her treatment, Stephanie headed to Vietnam in October 2007. Poolside with book and laptop in hand, she noticed share prices were tumbling.
“I remember thinking there had to be something wrong with the computers because everything was going backwards!”
It was the start of the global financial crisis and the beginning of the end for her headhunting business.
“It decimated my business in many ways,” she says of the crisis. “The demand had gone and it just became a really difficult environment.”
As the stocks continued to fall and business turned sour, Stephanie found herself back in the department store in search of that elusive cotton underwire-free bra. Again, nothing.
“Why isn’t anyone making bras for women with breast cancer?” she wondered.
“I’d had breast cancer,” she says. “I’ve got scars. I’ve got swelling from the radiotherapy. I needed a comfortable bra but I desperately wanted it to be beautiful too. I didn’t want to lose my identity just because I’d had cancer.”
“I thought, ‘This is crap. It’s not good enough’,” she explains, adding that despite spotting a gap in the market, she was reluctant to act until she had reached her five-year cancer-free anniversary. “I wasn’t sure that I was going to make it,” she says candidly.
However, that long-awaited anniversary came in May 2012. With a restored faith in her health, she took the leap and launched Bras Without Wires, a line of supportive bras in natural fabrics, to make the experience of going through breast cancer treatment less sterile.
“I was so determined to do it,” says Stephanie. “Given that in 2012, 1.7 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer globally, and there were 6.3 million women alive who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in the previous five years, I continued to find it distressing, even beyond treatment, that I couldn’t find anything to wear next to my radiation-damaged skin.”
She roped in three lingerie-designing friends, whom she paid with sushi and cashmere socks, to bring Bras Without Wires to life. They each juggled full-time jobs by day and worked on the business at night.
“It turns out designing a bra is slower than watching paint dry,” she laughs. “I swear we could have made a car in half the time. Every time a seam moved 1mm, something else had to move. Did you know that there are 15 pieces to a bra?”
It took nearly two years to see the first bra into fruition, but Stephanie says it was more than worth it.
Naming the first bra ‘Annie’ after her maternal grandmother who also had breast cancer, Stephanie is now working on a full range of lingerie and her website, Essential Luxuries for Cancer, has curated a selection of products specific for those undergoing treatment, from cashmere beanies to silk camisoles.
“It’s very difficult to know what to buy for someone going through chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and people who haven’t been through it are very conscious not to say, do, or buy the wrong thing,” she explains. “I was also consistently aware, during my seven months of treatment, of how hard it was for my family and friends back in England to find ways to support me and to show me that they were thinking of me every day.”
Following her heartfelt business decision, Stephanie couldn’t be more fulfilled. “Loss of identity is a huge factor for women and [we] aim to ‘normalise’ the experience as much as possible; to increase confidence and self-esteem. In simple terms, it’s bad enough having breast cancer without having to wear ugly lingerie!” she laughs. Stephanie has endless emails and thank you notes from women who agree.
Bras Without Wires reached the finals of LIVESTRONG’s Big C Competition in 2014, found a backer, and Stephanie has been full time in the business since May 2015, with a relaunch planned for November 2015. Using stunning European fabrics and laces, the bras are designed to appeal to all women who want a way out of the wire, and care about what lies next to their body . Bras Without Wires are lined with Australian made organic cotton and fit-for-purpose for a woman going through breast cancer treatment.
$1 for every bra sold will also be donated to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.