Shortly after breast reconstruction surgery, Jodie Faber went swimming in Traverse City’s East Bay.
“I got out of the water and my breasts were really white,” she said. “It kind of scared me.”
Faber went into the house where she was vacationing with her parents.
“I touched my breasts and they were freezing,” Faber said. “I put a towel on but that didn’t work. Only when I took a shower could I warm up the implant.”
Faber noticed similar cold spells during chilly weather. She consulted with her plastic surgeon and did a lot of research online, learning that many women use hand warmers to heat their implants.
“The problem is, there are no nerve endings in your breasts so you have no idea if they’re burning your skin.”
About three years ago, Faber took her issue to Spectrum Health Innovations. A promising solution is now in the works.
With the help of students from Central Michigan University, they created the thermal bra. It looks like a normal bra but has added fabric and a design that retains body heat.
“I’m absolutely thrilled that Spectrum Health Innovations took this on,” Faber said. “It’s not a typical clinical device. It’s something that’s more of a comfort issue for those of us who are breast cancer survivors.”
For the last year, Faber has been helping the Innovations team trial bras.
Anthony Lazzaro, a Spectrum Health Innovations team member, said many breast cancer survivors lose body heat when their breast tissue is removed and replaced with implants while undergoing a mastectomy.
After much experimenting with different fabrics and materials, the CMU team came up with various prototypes.
“The thermal bra actually helps to retain their own body heat to keep them warm,” Lazzaro said. “The thermal bra will help women who have undergone mastectomy with prosthetic reconstruction, which is over 1 million women today. Unfortunately, the market size increases each year with 1 in 8 women experiencing breast cancer in their lifetime. But the fortunate thing is that an increasing number are surviving.”
Currently, the only solution for cold breasts is to use hand warmers or battery-powered warming bras, which lead to problems and can take away from a sense of normalcy.
Lazzaro and team aim to bring the product to market following the proper testing.
“It is our goal to prove this product solves the problem these women experience,” Lazzaro said.
The female students from CMU who designed the product are working toward licensing the intellectual property from Spectrum Health and creating a startup company to manufacture and market the thermal bra.
“Sue, Augusta, Haley, Emily and team have been working diligently and have overcome many barriers and challenges to get to the point they are at with the thermal bra,” Lazzaro said. “This gives the Spectrum Health Innovations team confidence they have the capabilities to get it to market and to breast cancer survivors, which would be a major win for everyone involved.”
Sue Wroblewski, a graduate student in CMU’s fashion and merchandising program, worked on the project with fellow students Emily Austin, Haley Rusicka and Augusta Overy.
“I think it’s fabulous we are close to having a solution,” Wroblewski said. “Augusta and I worked through many hours of textile testing—50-plus fabrics.”
But warmth wasn’t the only design consideration.
“We made it a beautiful product because no one wants to wear an ugly bra,” Wroblewski said. “It has to be functional, but it has to be pretty, too. I want to buy it at Victoria’s Secret. I don’t want it to be at a medical supply company or Home Depot. We worked hard to make it beautiful and functional.”
Wroblewski’s thesis will be the wear trial, having women ages 45 to 65 who have undergone a double mastectomy and reconstruction/implant surgery wear the bra and give feedback.
“We’re excited to be able to make a difference for Jodie (Faber) and for other people who continue to suffer from cold breasts,” Wroblewski said. “These women have gone through chemo, lost their hair and gone through reconstruction. They’ve already met the demands of cancer. Now, they deserve to be comfortable.”