Woman’s college project helps cancer survivors feel ‘normal’

By: Kara Szymanski | Shelby - Utica News | Published November 11, 2019

 Models wear the Gretchen, left, and Jodie thermal bras  designed to help women who have had mastectomies.

Models wear the Gretchen, left, and Jodie thermal bras designed to help women who have had mastectomies.

Photo provided by Emily Austin

 The thermal bras are made of three main layers. The exact materials are a trade secret.

The thermal bras are made of three main layers. The exact materials are a trade secret.

Photo provided by Emily Austin

 There are four sets of clasps in the band and multiway straps that you can crisscross or wear straight over the shoulder.

There are four sets of clasps in the band and multiway straps that you can crisscross or wear straight over the shoulder.

Photo provided by Emily Austin

SHELBY TOWNSHIP — A thermal bra designed by local women is changing the way that bras feel and look for those who have survived cancer and undergone a mastectomy.

What started as a class project at Central Michigan University turned into a mission for four student entrepreneurs — Emily Austin, Haley Rusicka, August Overy and Sue Wroblewski.

The group’s Shelby Township-based startup, Elemental, sells thermal bras designed to provide warmth for women who have had reconstructive surgery — using silicone breast implants — after undergoing a double mastectomy. Implants can feel cold against a woman’s chest because a mastectomy removes tissue that insulates the core.

Austin, the CEO of Elemental, from Shelby Township, graduated from Central Michigan University in 2017. Elemental was her senior capstone project for entrepreneurship studies in 2016.

In September 2016, Austin met a woman diagnosed with breast cancer who had to undergo a mastectomy and reconstruction.

“I had the opportunity to meet Jodie Faber, who is a breast cancer survivor and had double mastectomy with prosthetic reconstruction. She described to us the painful coldness she has experienced since her reconstruction, and we started working on prototypes for the thermal bra. From there, there was just no looking back. She was the person who had the original idea and was a huge help in making sure we got the design right,” Austin said in an email.

Faber was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. About a decade later, she relayed her idea for some kind of warming bra to Spectrum Health Innovations, a for-profit business venture that Spectrum Health created in 2007.

“It began when I pitched my idea to my employer, a health care provider who was looking for ideas on how to create solutions for common problems. Solutions prior to this involved hand warmers that were not very effective, nor did it make me feel normal,” Faber said in an email.

The innovations team turned to CMU for assistance, and the team provided guidance to the group as they worked through the design and testing phase for the bra.

Austin said that the materials in the bra help the wearer by utilizing body heat and blocking out the outside cold.

“The actual materials used are a trade secret, but essentially we layered different types of insulation that all work together. Three main layers are comprised of an inside wicking layer avoiding sweating, the isolative bra cup, and the outside layer to keep the wind out as well as have a fashionable appearance,” she said.

“The different layers work together to avoid sweating and retain body heat. The bra does not create any heat of its own, but rather works to retain the heat our bodies are already creating. With that being said, they work best if put on after a hot shower or while you are already warm. Then they will keep you warm throughout the day.”

Faber described the issue with the cold after her mastectomy.

“I was cold all the time, particularly after swimming. Usually in the spring and the fall, when you don’t wear so many layers, you really notice how cold you get. During a discussion with my daughter, who also had a double mastectomy, we discovered just how cold the implants were compared to regular body temperature.”

The bras are also designed to be adjustable to the wearer’s liking.

“We tried to include as many features as we could to make the bras adjustable,” Austin said.

There are four sets of clasps in the band and multiway straps that you can crisscross or wear straight over the shoulder.

There are currently two styles of the bra available: the Jodie, which has a wide band style and comes in black; and the Gretchen, which has a traditional narrow band style that comes in nude. The bras are available in sizes 36B-38B, 32C-42C, 32D-40D and 36E.

Faber said that the first time she put the bra on, she got emotional.

“I cried! It was the first time I put on something that made me feel normal yet was very effective in keeping the cold out and keeping my body warm. As a rule, mastectomy survivors know that they do not look normal, but this bra not only looked beautiful, it felt ‘normal,’” she said.

The thermal bras are currently for sale only on Elemental’s website for $160 for either style. However, if you join the email list, you get an additional 35% off.

“Elemental has really come a long way in the past three years, but I am excited for the future and new designs/styles/colors to come!” said Austin.

For more information on the Elemental bras, call (586) 232-5076 or visit www.its-elemental.com.