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Fashion for YouBreast cancer survivors can easily find styles suited for their particular needs

Women experience a spectrum of physical changes throughout their lifetime, as they transition from adolescence through pregnancy through middle-age through their elderly years. In addition to the natural aging process, breast cancer survivors endure even more modifications. After emerging from surgery, chemotherapy or radiation—or a combination of all three—a survivor faces a permanently altered body… which can pose a dilemma in what she wears.

Jan Bilthouse, owner of two upscale apparel boutiques in Atlanta, knows first-hand how to dress stylishly while considering her changed appearance. A seven-year breast cancer survivor, Bilthouse underwent a double-mastectomy and, later, reconstructive surgery.

However, her initial TRAM surgery left her with chronic pain, since the former competitive swimmer had more muscle than fat in her abdomen for the reconstruction. As a result, Bilthouse put a halt to further surgery, which left her with a lopsided breast that was substantially smaller than her other.

Her challenge, then, became finding attractive clothes that, at the same time, fit well and felt comfortable. The tall, slender blonde didn’t like wearing loose-fitting clothes, and elastic waistbands aggravated the lymphedema she experienced in her chest and stomach. But the fashion-savvy entrepreneur—who over her career, has managed as many as twelve apparel boutiques throughout the Southeast—tapped into her wide resources and found styles suitable for both her figure and busy lifestyle.

Her boutiques, called The Bilt-House, carry everything in the way of women’s fashion, including casual sportswear, dresses, shoes, accessories and even juniors lines. Her younger staff selects the latest trends that translate well to the stores’ target market—women ages 30 to 60. Bilthouse hosts trunk shows and operates a teen board that’s representative of local high schools. In addition, she participates in numerous charity events, including cancer fundraisers in which she helps stage runway shows featuring cancer survivors as models.

Based on her personal and professional experience, Bilthouse assures survivors they aren’t limited in their clothing options.

“There’s such a wide variety of choices in today’s fashion that women can work with to fit their particular needs,” she says.

For example, women who’ve had lymph nodes removed from under their arms, can still find an array of dresses, blouses and tops with sleeves, when sleeveless designs are not an option.

“A lot of today’s styles camouflage the body,” she says. “When I wear a tight-fitting sparking tank top, I cover my left side with a great shawl.

“The key is investing in well-fitting undergarments,” she adds, “since they help build up what you might be missing.”

Bilthouse assures breast cancer survivors they have plenty of company when it comes to having body-image problems.

“Women come into my store all the time, worrying about their various figure flaws—whether it’s larger hips than they’d like, or the fact they’ve lost their waistline over the years” she says. “My staff is highly trained to work with customers in identifying the right styles that hide any figure flaw. However, customers need to be willing to share their concerns in order to get help.”

Karen Bull, owner of Karen's Fine Apparel in Duluth, Georgia, agrees with Bilthouse’s assessment of the myriad fashion options available for breast cancer survivors.

“There are so many fabulous clothes in the market today—not everything features plunging necklines and sleeveless styles,” says Bull. “Most of my customers are between 30 and 50, and they can find what works for them.”

Bull’s high-end boutique carries a diverse selection of merchandise—from premium denim to evening gowns. For the past several years, her store has contributed clothes—from business attire to sportswear to cocktail dresses–-for a fashion benefit for breast cancer research. The runway show uses professional models, including those who are breast cancer survivors.

Although she hasn’t personally battled breast cancer, Bull has experienced cancer in her own family. Both of her grandmothers were diagnosed with breast cancer and both her parents were diagnosed with other types of cancer. Consequently, she has a keen perspective about serving customers who are survivors, themselves.

“Their main concern is looking modern and current,” she says. “This is also my goal -- to give women an updated look, while enabling them to feel comfortable with their bodies, which is easy to do.”

Bull says survivors often want to avoid low necklines and sleeveless items because of surgical scars.

“I suggest styles that are not plunging, but still attractive, such as a v-neck, and three-quarter sleeves instead of sleeveless,” she says. “I also recommend separates because they fit better and you can choose different sizes, matching a fabulous top in one size with a fun skirt in another size.”

Bull also agrees that all women face figure challenges: “Breast cancer survivors aren’t alone in their figure concerns. I have customers who feel they are flat-chested, or full-figured, or too old for certain styles. The point is to look your best no matter what your physical limitations.” Bull’s main advice is selecting the appropriate size--which often means going up one size to allow for a proper shape without sacrificing comfort for a tight fit.