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Line of prosthetics helps women deal with changes from surviving cancer

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Oct. 9--DECATUR -- Sometimes, the road back to dignity and self-esteem for women means standing, half-naked, while Melva Behrens encases their chests in plaster.

The process can take several hours in the stylishly decorated salon where Behrens practices her painstaking art. Her clients are cancer survivors who have emerged from their ordeal minus one or even both breasts. The plaster impressions, one taken with a bra and breast prosthesis in place, another taken without them to mirror the shape of the scar tissue left behind after surgery, become the stepping stones to a new lease on looking good.

The plaster casts and a series of Polaroids snapped by Behrens are used as the basis for artisans to hand-sculpt breast prostheses made of silicone foam that is 50 percent lighter than other "off the shelf" versions. Behrens says they are also much more comfortable and available in 21 color shades, from African-American to Caucasian and all racial stops in between.

And the news just keeps on getting better: "They look and feel like breast tissue and, because they have been custom-designed, they fit exactly with the shape of the woman's chest wall," she said.

"The other prosthetics on the market have to be worn with a special pocketed bra, but these don't need one, and women can wear the bras they had before their surgery. This product fits snug and tight and you can even attach it with a special kind of glue so that you can go swimming in a pool or the ocean. It's amazing, and the girls just love it."

A cosmetologist by training, Behrens got into the art of reconstruction six years ago through the plight of her late aunt, who lost her hair during cancer treatment and hated the sweaty wigs she had to wear. Behrens found a company that offered custom-fitted hair prostheses and received training to fit and cut them herself, which she still does. She began working with a wide circle of cancer patients, and moving into the business of breast prosthetics was a natural progression to help her customers. But she grew tired of the non-custom options out there that sometimes left clients feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed by their appearance.

"I went searching for something that would be so much better," said Behrens. "And these new breast prosthetics, made by a company called Radiant Impressions, is what I came up with a year and a half ago."

The company trained her to do the complex casting and measuring needed, and Behrens packages up her plaster casts and pictures and detailed measurements and sends them off to the company headquarters in Lexington, Ky. That's where a team of sculptors crafts the prostheses destined to make women resemble their own memories of themselves.

The company was founded in 2001 by retired Kentucky orthodontist Terry Ferguson, who was disgusted by the prosthetic choices open to his wife Frances who went shopping for one after losing a breast to cancer. He told her: "Honey, let's go home. I can make a better wheel."

"The Radiant Impressions system is what he came up with," said Teresa Hamm, assistant breast care product manager for the Trulife company, of which Radiant is now a division. "It all came from this man's gift of love for his wife, and we've now fitted close to 5,000 of them in the United States."

It's not cheap -- Behrens says $2,700 is a typical total cost -- but the good news is that insurance companies are paying for the work.

"It's also cheaper than breast reconstructive surgery," she said. "These women have already been through so much with a mastectomy and chemo and so on, and some of them don't want to face surgery again."

October is breast cancer awareness month, a time to acknowledge the challenge and tragedy of the disease and to celebrate those who survive and go on to reclaim their lives.

"Women get teary when they walk out of here and see how great they look," said Behrens. "I get all teary, too, it's wonderful to see their happiness, to be a part of it."


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