Fitting Cancer Survivors With Mastectomy Products and Wigs: Pattie’s Story
After she took her mother to a cancer boutique in the suburbs, Pattie made it her mission to provide cancer recovery products and services in the city of Chicago; she opened her own shop, where she helps women face their life’s second act and deal with the challenges of their new situation.
Tell us a little about your background…
I am the fourth daughter in a family of five children. Born in 1953, I grew up in a traditional, comfortable, happily normal family in Hinsdale, IL, a suburb of Chicago. Today, all of my siblings are married and my sisters have children and grandchildren. But from the very beginning, I chose a different path.
My parents were great role models showing us how important it was to be fully engaged in life. While they loved being parents, they also existed as individuals and encouraged us to do the same.
My father developed a love for flying in WWII during which he was a B-17 pilot and squadron leader, all by the time he was 21. He eventually became a commercial pilot with United Airlines.
My mother was what we now refer to as a stay at home mom. She loved being a mom and took that role very seriously. But while the home was her domain, she was often anywhere but there. She was excellent at multitasking, before there was such a word, as she was raising five children, all within seven years of age, and my father was often gone, as pilots are. She maintained her sense of self by participating on many boards and committees, usually in an officer’s role. For many years, she was even the foreman on the local coroner’s jury. We learned, at an early age, to be independent and to look out for each other.
Being a child of the ‘50s and a teenager in the ‘60s, I matured at a time when life, as we knew it, was changing and new opportunities were opening up for women. At my parents’ insistence, I was a debutante, as were my sisters before me. But I knew I was headed for a career and would not have a traditional life similar to the way I grew up.
In high school I was an editor on the school paper and had a regular column in the local newspaper, the Hinsdale Doings. I entered college with my sights set on a degree in Journalism. I wanted my college experience to be different from anything I had known so far and chose to attend the University of Montana. So, at age 18, I headed out on my own for parts unknown.
In 1971, I earned my bachelor’s degree in Journalism, which in those days carried the cache that MBAs do today. I chose the journalism school’s advertising curriculum over the reporting track, as it would open many more doors to business. I had always enjoyed being in a leadership role in everything I did, so leading clients and account teams just made sense. It being the 70s, however, the first ad agency I worked for didn’t even allow women to be “account guys.” So I was hired as a secretary, thanks to the typing skills I developed in journalism school. But it was a way in and I stuck with it. Within less than two years, I moved on to an agency that saw my potential and I became a “Mad Man.”
Over the next 25 years, I worked in account management for a variety of ad agencies, including international powerhouse Young & Rubicam. My last advertising position was as Vice President, Director of Client Service for a small, family owned shop, where my experience far exceeded that of the owners. There I could really spread my wings and use the years of knowledge and experience I had accumulated. I led multidisciplinary teams and clients in a wide range of industries.
What prompted a change in careers?
The downside to all this high flying was the instability of the ad business. When times get tough, clients cut budgets and ad agencies cut people. And that is just what happened when our largest single client cancelled our contract; I was let go. Now, it had never occurred to me that I would do anything different than what I had done my entire career. It was what I had envisioned and trained for since I was a teenager. And yet here I was, 51 years old, too old to be considered relevant in the ad game, forced to figure out my next move.
At first I resisted making a career change. I tried consulting. I even took a six-month assignment back in Missoula, MT repositioning and establishing a new identity for a local telecommunications company. But in the end, the drudgery of prospecting outweighed the enjoyment of executing the assignments.
What is your next act?
In August, I will begin my eighth year as a Certified Mastectomy Fitter and the owner of Second Act Cancer Recovery Boutique in Chicago, IL. My product offerings include: breast prostheses and pocketed mastectomy bras; wigs, hats and scarves; compression garments; pocketed swim suits, tank tops and sleepwear.
Women often tell me their visit to Second Act was so much easier than they expected. I believe this comes from my desire to teach and train, something that was an important part of my previous career and something at which I excel. Except now it is helping women understand how to adjust to the challenges their new situation presents. We schedule a one-hour appointment for each woman. During that hour, my focus is entirely on them; fitting them for their products and, along the way, answering their questions about their new challenges. It is, after all, the joy I get from women telling me what a difference I have made in their lives that makes this all worthwhile. And, in the end, we share hugs, not handshakes.
How did you go from advertising and consulting to opening Second Act?
In 2005, my mother, Tess, was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. My father, Jack, had died of pancreatic cancer back in 1978, at only 55. Now 80, Tess was facing a tough battle. She survived for two years, going through surgeries and chemotherapy, and I was grateful to have the flexibility to be there with her. When she lost her hair, we went to a cancer boutique for a wig and that was when it hit me. I could open a shop like that, be my own boss, and help people through some very tough times.
Relying on years of marketing experience I assessed the opportunity and determined that opening a shop in downtown Chicago would give me a geographic advantage over the other boutiques in the Chicago suburbs. After all, there were 12 hospitals within five miles of my home in downtown Chicago, including Northwestern, Rush, and University of Illinois.
Now perhaps you have heard the old adage that says, “If you are going to change careers, choose something about which you know something.” Since opening Second Act Cancer Recovery Boutique in 2008, I have often thought that is great advice and I probably should have followed it—but I didn’t. I just jumped in with both feet.
How did you learn enough to open your own business?
I went back to the woman who owned the mastectomy and wig boutique where my mother got her wig. She was willing to share her 20 years of experience. She told me who the key vendors were from whom I should purchase product. She let me observe her operation and see how things are done. She also told me about an industry organization, Essentially Women (EW), that offers an annual conference attended by mastectomy fitters from around the country.
I started by taking the classes offered by the primary vendors in the industry. They all run training programs on how to fit their products, as well as imparting information about breast cancer and its treatment. I took classes from several companies to get more than one perspective. I also attended the EW Annual Conference of Mastectomy Fitters. Within a few months, I was ready to sit for my certification exam, administered by the Board of Certification/Accreditation. Being a Certified Mastectomy Fitter is crucial to doing the job properly, and essential to owning an accredited mastectomy boutique.
Because mastectomy products are covered by insurance as a medical necessity, and only accredited organizations are granted insurance contracts, the next step was to have Second Act accredited by the American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics & Perdorthics. This was an onerous but important step. Once we were accredited, I was ready to secure contracts with the leading private insurance companies and Medicare. These contracts account for more than 70% of our business. And while Second Act could not survive without them, they are also the reason we struggle financially because they cap the cost of items at an agreed upon amount that is not favorable in a retail setting. Thus one of my greatest challenges is stocking and selling ancillary products that are not covered by insurance and bring in much needed additional revenue.
How did you manage the financials?
Starting out, my primary source of funding was my inheritance from my mother; that was to have been my retirement fund. For, while I had been married for several years right out of college, I have been single and self-supporting for the past 30 years. The freedom and independence of this decision has been important to my happiness but not without its challenges.
As executor of my mother’s estate, I was fully aware that my siblings had all received a share of her estate equal to mine. Knowing that they all had extremely comfortable lives I thought, briefly, that one or more of them might be willing to use some of that to invest in my new business. Unfortunately, another lesson we all learned from my parents was to not lend money to family. Thus, it quickly became clear that I would be entering into this new venture entirely on my own.
As I burned through my finances covering my personal living expenses, as well as the cost of establishing a new business, I started to investigate other financing options. This, too, was a real eye opener. I learned that within the financial community a small business is defined as one with less than $5,000,000 in annual sales and fewer than 50 employees. With sales of $632 in my first six months and no employees, I was definitely smaller than that. So conventional bank financing and private angel investors were not options.
I did secure a small business loan from ACCION, a great resource that specializes in microloans for small businesses. Over the years, they have continued to be a great resource and partner including promoting Second Act at many of their events.
Each year the business grew and five years after opening Second Act, my annual sales were $150,000. I still had no employees, nor do I even now. What I did have was substantial credit card debt and a severely diminished Smith Barney investment account.
Did you think about giving up?
Giving up was not an option. Not only did I have no idea what else I would do to support myself, I had sunk my entire savings into this business and, at age 60, so-called entitlement programs such as social security and Medicare were also not options. And then there were the over 1000 women who had come to rely on me, and Second Act, for their post-breast surgery needs. Without Second Act, where would they go for their breast prostheses and mastectomy bras? And what about the women yet to be diagnosed who would become my new clients?
How do you promote your business?
As a former marketing professional I know the importance of promoting my business. I also know the importance of targeted marketing. Unfortunately, I have no way of predicting who my future clients will be so all I can do is be present in places where women search for information about breast surgery.
My primary source of business is referral; both from medical professionals and from current clients. As I close in on the seventh anniversary of opening Second Act, I am happy to report that within the past year I have felt a shift in the business. The referrals from breast surgeons and other medical professionals haven’t changed much but recognition of Second Act as the “go to” resource for all things mastectomy has grown. I attribute this to my above average service and my public relations efforts.
I have been interviewed on the local ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX stations as well as radio shows and blogs. Key to garnering this kind of exposure is a willingness to just show up. Media outlets often need material for early weekend morning shows; and I mean EARLY. Luckily, that audience is heavily female. I have pitched my story as a resource for the one in eight women who will be faced with breast cancer in her lifetime. It is a story that resonates and opens doors.
I have also gone back to my journalism roots. I have established myself as the subject matter expert on post breast surgery care. I have written editorials for special breast cancer sections in the Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times, magazine of Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and other print and online media outlets.
My website is also an important resource. I don’t sell products on my site; I provide information about post breast surgery needs and care, and the products that make life after breast surgery easier. I also have pages on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+. Because of this my organic search results and Internet presence are bringing in more and more women. I am even starting to get some walk-in business.
Best of all, I am no longer putting money into the business. In fact, I am finally paying myself a modest stipend; emphasis on modest.
What other challenges have you faced in this new venture?
Being an entrepreneur has been extremely stressful, especially with no business partner or domestic partner. Not only is there no one to turn to for financial assistance, there is no one to turn to on a regular basis for emotional support or with whom to share the successes.
I am grateful for the support I get from the wonderful women I have met at my annual conferences over the years. As mastectomy fitters and owners of businesses similar to Second Act, they “get it.” But generally speaking, others who are not familiar with this industry—which is most people—don’t understand that my role in the lives of my clients is akin to being a caregiver. These women count on me to “make everything better.” This is something I did not anticipate and it has made these past seven years much more difficult than I expected.
On the positive side, being completely independent, I have had the freedom to make my own decisions, however good or bad they may be. The sense of accomplishment, knowing I made it happen, all on my own, is something no one can take away from me. And for sure my parents are smiling, knowing all along that I would get this done.
But I am not done just yet. I am always exploring what I can do next to grow and improve Second Act. I wonder what it will look like a year, two years, five years from now. After all, I am only 62; there is still plenty of time to refine my second act.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife? Any favorite resources?
If reinventing yourself means starting a new business venture, here are my tips:
Learn as much as you can about your proposed new venture before you begin investing assets that you cannot recover. Talk with people who are already doing what you are proposing to do, if not exactly what you are proposing then as similar as possible.
Network, Network, Network. Take every opportunity to meet people and promote your business. I enter business contests such as the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and the US Chamber of Commerce Blue Ribbon Awards for exposure and, sometimes, cash prizes. I also found the Treasurer’s Office of the City of Chicago to be a great resource. I have entered, and won, their Elevator Speech contest. I have also entered their Business Plan contest, which I did not win but from which I got important feedback, and I have participated in their annual Small Business Expo.
Be sure you have the financial resources and the mental resolve to push through the tough times. It is much more difficult to bounce back from challenging situations than it was when we were younger.
No matter how much time and money you think you will need to invest before your venture turns a profit don’t just double it, triple it or even quadruple it.
Assess the value of having a partner; if not a financial one, at least someone who will be your cheerleader in the tough times and your celebratory pal when things go well.
Your state of mind is your most important asset. When challenges arise, facing them with the attitude that failure is not an option is what will help you turn the problem on its head and find a solution.
Finally, good luck. And, if it doesn’t find you, then make your own.
Contact Pattie Cagney Sheehan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 773-525-2228.
Certified Mastectomy Fitter, Owner of Second Act Cancer Recovery Boutique
Second Act is Chicago’s only cancer recovery boutique offering post breast surgery prostheses and bras; compression bras, sleeves, gauntlets and gloves; wigs, hats and scarves; and pocketed apparel. Many of these items are covered by insurance so be sure to let us know if you have insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Located at 2924 North Lincoln Avenue, we are convenient to downtown and easily accessible by car and public transportation.