When Life’s Not Perfect – Pivot

March 15, 2017, In: DO, Featured, Personal Growth
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In the summer of 2010, I had a fulfilling job as a publisher at Wiley. I’d always dreamed of running my own business, but I hadn’t found an idea that I felt passionate enough about to make a radical change. Besides, after a long fertility journey, I was finally pregnant with my son and despite my age, I was having an easy pregnancy. I felt that everything in my life was falling into place. Then everything changed. That October I was four months pregnant and had just started telling people my good news. Then, during a breast self-exam, I felt a lump.

Job one for me was delivering a healthy baby… and then living long enough for him to remember me.

 

I told myself it must be a pregnancy thing, but I had my doubts. I wondered why I didn’t feel anything similar in my right breast. I almost didn’t tell my doctor about it at my next prenatal visit. Right before he left the room I said, “I know it’s probably nothing, but I felt a lump.” He asked me to show him where it was, and when I removed my gown, he said I didn’t have to show him. He could see its outline from across the room.

I was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer. Within a week, I had a mastectomy. At the start of my surgery my doctor said to the team: “We have two patients today. Kitt Allan and her son.” Her clinical nurse made sure that they had a fetal heartbeat monitor in the recovery room so I could hear right away that my son was still okay.

Within a month, I started chemotherapy. Fortunately, because I was past the first trimester, chemo was safe for the baby. I couldn’t have breast reconstruction because of all the changes associated with pregnancy. In fact, the surgeon told me it would probably take a year or more for my body to settle down enough to have good results with plastic surgery.

I’m not sure I would have had reconstruction anyway, but at the time that was not my most important concern. Job one for me was delivering a healthy baby and then living long enough for him to remember me. At that point my imagination, hopes and dreams really didn’t go further than that.

I finished chemo the end of May 2010. I was a reluctant “survivor sister.” I didn’t do Komen or Avon walks. I didn’t join a support group. I didn’t especially like Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I just wanted to get better and return to my regular life. It didn’t matter that I wanted to avoid my new life. It found me.

My boss and another publisher I worked with were breast cancer survivors who helped me with tips and tricks.They showed me that life during and after cancer could still be amazing. Having two great role models was very helpful during my journey. I discovered an organization, Hope for Two, that provides support for pregnant women with cancer. I remembered how odd it had felt to be like a walking yin and yang, creating one life, while fighting for my own. I thought about how alone I felt in that respect. I didn’t want anyone else to have to feel that way. I started doing peer support for other pregnant women with cancer. That felt real and authentic to me.

My life started to return to normal. I wore a prosthetic breast and felt comfortable with my new body, so much so that sometimes I forgot that I didn’t have two real breasts. The only time I second-guessed my decision to forgo reconstruction, even after it was an available option, was when I tried on bras and bathing suits. The available choices were grim. I searched high and low for better options—on the web, at specialty boutiques, at places that advertised that they could sew pockets for prosthetics into regular bras. All the options I found were disappointing. They were ill-fitting or frumpy, and often both.

I searched out advice from others and discovered that many breast cancer survivors, whether they had reconstruction or not, were unhappy with the available options. These women were like me. They wanted to feel like themselves again. They wanted to feel confident and happy in their own skin. They wanted to feel sexy again. And guess what? Breast cancer survivors weren’t alone in feeling that way!

I wanted to resolve that problem. Restoring beauty and confidence, and delivering joy to women whatever their body type or history: here was an idea I felt passionate about. The more I thought about the idea, the more I realized there was a market, and not just for breast cancer survivors.

Restoring beauty and confidence, and delivering joy to women whatever their body type or history: here was an idea I felt passionate about.

 

I had dozens of ideas for products—a long list of things I, or women I met, couldn’t find, or once had but no longer worked for them because their bodies had changed. And then I put my spin on them. They had to be beautiful or fun, and ideally both. Each one had to be special. I hired a fantastic technical designer and manufacturing lead, Dominique Daniela, whose mother was a breast cancer survivor and who ran an annual fundraiser for young women with breast cancer.

She and I worked for two years perfecting patterns before we became customer-facing. For about half that time, I also kept my day job. I only had the courage to quit after my job was eliminated in a downsizing. I was offered other jobs within the company, but I knew they weren’t for me. I saw this as my time to follow my dream and have the courage to go out on my own.

I love that I can make products my way, with my values. That means making them in the US, so that we know the women making our clothes are treated and paid fairly. That means choosing eco and sustainable, or repurposed, fabrics whenever possible. I’m working on a collection now that is inspired by my love of Japan, where my parents lived for many years. I’m using vintage kimono fabrics. I love challenging the idea that eco-friendly and luxury can’t go hand in hand. As a core part of our mission, we donate 10 percent of every sale to nonprofits supporting breast cancer survivors. I guess you could say our garments support women in a variety of ways. For me, that’s a beautiful thing that sparks joy!

As I write this, I’m watching my son Liam play with his fire trucks. He’s 5 now and vehicles are, and always have been, his thing. When he was younger, I used to worry about having a recurrence. After all, 30 percent of women who have had breast cancer, no matter what stage or type, will eventually get it again as metastatic cancer, for which there is currently no cure. I would feel sad about missing all the things I dreamed of doing with and for him.

Then, one sunny day while dropping him off at preschool, the truth hit me—none of us have that guarantee. No parent knows for sure that they will be there for pick-up, or that their child will be there healthy enough to run across the room and fling himself into your arms. The only difference for me, and probably anyone else who has had a close call or another sort of awakening, was that the veil had been pulled away. I was more conscious of the fragility of life. To some, that epiphany might not sound comforting, but for me it’s led to gratitude and seizing the day.

I now use this “gratitude” lens in my approach to life and business. My journey may not have been perfect, but I now know the power of pivoting. There’s no guarantee that any of this will be here tomorrow, and every day I am more mindful to be present for my family, for my business, for my friends, for myself.

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Kitt Allan

Kitt Allan

A former publisher for Wiley, Kitt Allan is CEO & Founder of Kitt Allan Inc. Visit her website at KittAllan.com.

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