“I’m amazed at how many women have had a mastectomy and never held a breast form in their hand,” says Donna McNeight, co-owner of Gazebo Intimates in Northampton. In the walk-in closet, she slides open the closet door, where pink and beige boxes are stacked by size. She opens one and passes me a prosthesis. It’s soft and light and my fingers squeeze it like they’re holding something delicate, precious.
I haven’t had a mastectomy, but a dear friend recently lost both breasts, and we had many conversations about what that might look like. The loss would protect her life, but would she be able to hold it close, mourn it, and share it when and if she was ready? Or would people see what was no longer there and make sense of it?
McNeight reaches out, puts the form back in the closet. “I had never thought about my boobs before,” she says. “At all.”
Ironically, if she hadn’t been diagnosed with breast cancer 14 years ago, McNeight would never have come across the store she now owns, one that celebrates women’s bodies. Ever since it opened, Gazebo has been known for its inclusiveness: all body shapes and sizes can shop for underwear here. But she would find out later. After running a pharmacy through her diagnosis and treatment — while raising three kids — McNeight found herself browsing Craigslist job postings. Wanted, said one, a bra fitter at Gazebo.
She had worked in retail since high school in Chesterfield, but that, she says, “was completely out of my wheelhouse.” She was a quick study, joining the company in 2010 and taking it over six years later.
Gazebo founder Judith Fine started the business in 1978 and established a loyal following that even included post-mastectomy clients. For a time, Fine sent all cancer survivors to a nurse at a nearby company; then her husband was diagnosed with colon cancer. A seamstress who once designed her own lingerie, Fine decided to expand her reach. “I realized we were doing boobs, and I’m comfortable talking about cancer,” she explains. “It’s very sensitive, but it’s also incredibly rewarding for both client and fitter to help a woman feel good about herself after having life-changing surgery.”
McNeight has been on both sides of that dynamic. “I know it helps when a woman loses her breast to sit across from a woman who has also lost her breast,” she says. She remembers how much it meant to her, during her chemotherapy and reconstructive surgery, when nurses shared that they were survivors. Every time McNeight thought, And look at you, back to work. Your hair is back. You are here.
According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and more than 4 million are living with or have survived a diagnosis. More than 6,700 Massachusetts women have been diagnosed this year. McNeight says it’s not uncommon for her to fit five post-mastectomy clients a day, and that Gazebo is one of two companies in the state that offers post-mastectomy fittings in a non-medical setting.
The frame is important. Gazebo as a place is above all feminine. “I mean, you don’t want to go to a hardware store to buy your underwear,” McNeight laughs.
“If you go to a medical supply store, that’s how you’re outfitted, in a little closet with a port-a-potty,” Fine says.
Now that everyone is comfortable, there are practical reasons to gear up. The loss of a breast can affect balance and strain the back. Clothes fall differently. The whole body has to adapt.
Then there is the fact that a cancer diagnosis is quite overwhelming. McNeight acknowledges that “how do you want to replace your breast? is not an appealing question. Now a certified post-mastectomy fitter, she can guide women through their options. Will they have a double mastectomy? Have they had a lumpectomy and need a partial form? What weight do they want the bra to be? How smooth? Do they just want a comfortable camisole to wear after surgery? To start, what do they need?
And finally, there’s the obvious: in a breast-obsessed, male-dominated society, breasts aren’t just visible, they’re on display. As well as their absence.
“If a man were to lose his nose — and it’s not even a sexual part of the body, but it’s the only forward-facing part — he’d want that replaced,” McNeight says. “He wouldn’t want to walk around without a nose. It’s the only thing I can think of for a man to understand how important it is to lose a boob.
More than 30,000 women have shopped at Gazebo over the past three decades, women who have told McNeight and his staff that Gazebo has redefined their relationship with their breasts. For someone who, not so long ago, didn’t think about their own, these testimonials say it all.
Gazebo is open every day except Monday. For more information or to book a fitting, visit www.the-gazebo.com.
Melissa Karen Sances recently moved from Boston to Easthampton and can’t wait to tell meaningful stories about her new home. Contact her at [email protected]
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