This is part of a series on West Chester entrepreneurs. Know someone who’s taking an innovative approach to the mantra, “Follow your dream?” I’d love to share their story. Thank you to Benchmark Federal Credit Union for making this expanded content possible.
Each year, nearly 300,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer, of those an estimated 100,000 will undergo some form of mastectomy, the surgical removal of one or both breasts. It’s hard to imagine a more vulnerable time for a woman. Your body has been torn apart, your sexuality up-ended, mortality confronted, and yet you are expected to carry on like all is well. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, in some sort of bizarre cosmic joke, you are asked to deal with four small surgical drains dangling off your person while your body oozes itself back to health.
In a profile on her website, Kelly Hobbs, breast cancer survivor and founder of Kelly Bee Designs, a line of mastectomy and surgical garments, describes feeling “completely overwhelmed” ahead of her surgery. She worried about how it would affect her family and who would watch her preschool-age children so she could make her doctor’s appointments.
“It’s horrible,” said Kelly who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. She was 36. Her cancer was stage 3b when they caught it and she was going to have “the works,” as she put it. This included chemotherapy, hormone therapy, mastectomy, radiation, and then a final reconstruction surgery.
Complicated Procedure. Simple Solution.
The mastectomy surgery comes roughly midway through this trying process. Beyond the physical and psychological strains, there are the practical aspects of the surgery. Like, what do you wear? Seriously. You can’t lift your arms, so you need something that opens in the front. You have these ports dangling off your body that need to go somewhere. Yet you only have them for about two weeks. Hardly making it worthwhile to invest in a new wardrobe, still too long to spend walking around like an escaped hospital patient.
“Everything was surgical clothing,” said Kelly. “Nothing looked interesting or even affordable for two weeks.”
A friend of Kelly’s who had also gone through the surgery suggested she pin the ports to the inside of her normal clothing, but with four ports that need to be drained four times a day that amounts to a lot of pinning and unpinning. What she needed was some normal, comfortable clothing with a place to store the drains. Then it came to her. Pockets. Interior pockets.
“I decided to sew pockets inside a couple of my shirts to hold the drains and manage them more easily,” Kelly said. “After my surgery, the wonderful nurses who helped me were amazed by my drain pockets and thought they were so helpful. I had already started thinking about ways to help others who were going through this process and now realized this was it.”
It took a few years, but as her youngest headed to first grade, Kelly headed back to her sewing machine and turned her former Etsy baby quilt shop into “Kelly Bee Designs: Mastectomy and Surgical Recovery Clothing.” She added pockets to tank tops, hoodies, and pajamas and won over legions of fans who found themselves much like Kelly – navigating a pre- to post-surgery world with little help.
“Anyone who has tried to find clothes to wear out while their drains are in knows how few items exist that are functional, never mind cute. Thanks, Kelly for making this journey a little bit easier,” one recent reviewer wrote.
To date, Kelly Bee Designs has sold over 8,000 garments on Etsy and has more than 1000 five-star reviews. As demand for the niche brand has increased, Kelly has grown her company from Jo-Ann fabric runs and a sewing machine in the guest bedroom – she estimates she’s sewn about 6,000 garments herself – to having the items manufactured overseas.
But whether she is stitching the clothing herself or placing bulk orders with a factory, what makes Kelly’s shop work so well is her knowledge of her customer base. Kelly Bee Designs is not the vision of someone who can only imagine the post-surgery journey, it is the vision of someone who has lived it. Someone who knows how lonely it can be.
There is a blog on her website which she has filled with tips and insights about what to expect before and after the surgery. “A lot of people don’t know anyone who has gone through the surgery,” Kelly said. Then with each purchase, she includes a note. “I just write a little something,” she said. “It makes me feel like I am sending a little hug to my customer.”
Everything about the process is done with intent and the customer in mind right down to the fabric that is used to form the pockets. “I spend a lot of time thinking about fabric,” said Kelly. She favors bold florals or whimsical patterns even though the pockets are not meant to be seen.
“You’re going to do this horrible thing that you’re dreading and you see this bright, colorful print and it makes you smile,” she said. It’s like passing a secret note between two people who know exactly what it feels like to be at that moment.
Editor’s note: Full disclosure, Kelly Bee Designs is now based in Malvern, but Kelly was a West Chester resident when she began her amazing company – so I say that counts.
Facts about Breast Cancer:
- 1 in 8 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.
- In 2023, an estimated 297,790 women and 2,800 men will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer.
- There are five stages of Breast Cancer. Stage 0 – abnormal cells have been found; Stage 1 – cancer is evident but it is contained to the area where cells were first detected. Stage 2 – means the cancer is growing but still contained. Stage 3 – the cancer has spread but not yet to distant organs. In Stage 4 – also known as metastatic breast cancer – the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. Stage 4 cancer is not curable.
- Breast cancer death rates have declined 43 percent from 1989 to 2020. This is in part due to better screening and early detection efforts, increased awareness, and continually improving treatment options.
- There are currently over 3.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.
Facts from the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
The only federal credit union to exclusively serve Chester County, Benchmark Federal Credit Union provides commercial lending products for local businesses. Clients can count on personalized service, local decision-making, and quick loan turnaround time. Benchmark FCU not only understands your business but can provide a wide range of financial solutions, including commercial real estate-secured loans. We’re ready to be your trusted business banking partner. To learn more about our business banking solutions, visit http://www.benchmarkfcu.org.