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Cheryl MacKay: a cancer survivor who turned her struggle into an opportunity

Cheryl MacKay knows firsthand the practical and emotional challenges of breast cancer
Cheryl MacKay knows firsthand the practical and emotional challenges of breast cancer - Rosalie MacEachern

There was a time when Cheryl MacKay thought pretty bras had no place in her life but today they line the walls of her shop.

The idea for Pretty Bras and Perfect Forms was born 15 years ago in a curtained off corner of a medical supply store where she was trying on her first prosthesis.

“I knew there had to be a better way. I was 39 and in amongst the wheel chairs, canes and commodes. A kindly lady handed me a couple of boxed bras to choose from and I was out the door.”

For the past 18 months, women who have had mastectomies and other breast surgeries have been coming to the shop in her MacLellan’s Brook home where she fits them and helps them choose from her extensive stock.

“I’ve been on the same journey as these women. I’d have been much more comfortable in a place like this, with more privacy, more service, more selection and more time,” she said, waving a hand around the tastefully decorated shop where bras, sportswear and lingerie are displayed on the walls and prostheses of different sizes are stacked in boxes on a shelf.

MacKay is a trained and certified fitter, recognized by MSI and insurance companies that provide coverage for prostheses, but most of what she brings to her work comes from shared experience.

“I had my first diagnosis at 31 – when my girls were 7, 9 and 11. I never saw it coming and it terrified me.”

A section of her breast was removed and her follow-up included radiation and long term medication.

“This was before the pink ribbon campaign, well before dragon boat. There were no local support groups. We had dial up Internet for information but everything felt so far away from me.”

She remembers surgeon Dr. Basi Cole arranged for a woman who had a similar surgery to visit her in the hospital.

“She was older than I was but talking to her helped. I had early detection and a good prognosis – I understand that now – but as a mother with very young children that was hard to take in.”

Five years later, with no reoccurrence, MacKay thought she was in the clear. Two years after that she got her second diagnosis and this time her breast was removed.

“I felt my body betrayed me. I lost my breast, my hair, my energy. With chemotherapy I looked and felt sick. I was sure I’d never be myself again.”

By now there was a support group in the community.

“I was up for any help I could get. I was the youngest woman in the group by far but I definitely got support from the other women. When the dragon boat came along I jumped at the chance to paddle. The physical effort made me feel like I was fighting back against cancer.”

For years, though, she was dogged by fear.

“I feared cancer was coming back for me. I feared my girls were going to go through life without a mother and I also feared I may have passed this on to the girls.”

MacKay, whose sister was also diagnosed with breast cancer, underwent genetic testing and learned she does not have genes known to carry breast cancer.

“Based on what we know today that is good news but there is a lot we don’t know so I’m a strong supporter of all types of screening. Early detection is still our best defence.”

MacKay was part way through the long process of breast reconstruction when her husband Allan died very suddenly.

“I quickly understood there are worse things for a family than breast cancer. Losing a husband and father was a far bigger loss. Instead of thinking I was going to die I had to change to thinking I had to live.”

She gave up on reconstruction, eventually opting for a tattoo that distracts from the scars of surgery.

“I was on my own and I did it just for myself. I wanted something pretty and I’ve no regrets.”

The dream of opening a shop went on the shelf until her daughters were grown.

“I had a job with benefits and I had bills to pay and kids to get through school so I was in no position to take on the risk of opening a business but I held onto the idea.”

MacKay is grateful to have seen her daughters graduate high school and university.

“I’m one of the lucky ones. I got to walk my girls down the aisle at their weddings. I’ve got three beautiful grandchildren and a fourth coming soon.”

With the support of a new partner, she opened her business, drawing women from Pictou, Antigonish, Guysborough and Colchester as well as a few from Cape Breton.

“There are other options for women but the only other private services are in Sydney and Halifax. It comes down to where a woman is more comfortable going.”

MacKay was confident from the start that she could offer women a positive service but she has had a few struggles along the way.

“I had to accept early on that my personal story is a big part of what sets my business apart. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with being so public as mine is only one story but I’ve been overwhelmed by the response to my social media posts.”

MacKay had also gotten to a point in her life where she no longer thought of cancer each day.

“The business has certainly brought that back, not in terms of my own health but in terms of the women I work with. I feel what they are going through but I also know how empowering it is when you feel more like a woman again.”

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