Wear Ease makes post-surgical bras, camisoles and shirts for men and women to wear home after a mastectomy. The garments — covered by Medicare and other health insurers — are designed to be comfortable for patients who have post-surgical wounds and swelling in their chests, torsos and arms.
They have fabric strips and pouches to hold bulbs that collect fluid the body produces while it’s healing from a major surgery.
And the company’s owner, Phyllis Keith, says orders are growing with increased awareness of breast cancer — and as more people learn about her products.
Because it serves such a niche market, Wear Ease doesn’t have many competitors. It’s also not the only business in the Treasure Valley that caters to mastectomy patients. Bosom Buddy, a prosthesis company based in Boise, makes breast-shaped forms that women can use to fill bra cups after a mastectomy.
Bosom Buddy was founded 40 years ago by Melva Smith, who had undergone a mastectomy and found a lack of good prosthetic options. It was purchased in 1992 by Stacie Neely and her husband.
Neely said the Boise Bench company has become smaller — going from 23 employees to eight — in recent years, as orders from customers nationwide have slowed.
“We’re lean and mean (now, because of ) two major factors,” she said. “The change in insurance companies and prevalence of Medicare replacement plans that require women to buy from local companies. ... And the fact that surgeries are more conservative now.”
Though it means fewer sales, Neely said the latter development is great. Surgeons now are doing more lumpectomies and fewer total mastectomies — meaning only part of the breast is removed.
Unlike many small business owners, Keith doesn’t have a personal origin story behind her company. She didn’t undergo a mastectomy and yearn for a new kind of product, for example.
Instead, Keith stepped into the post-surgical garment world in the early 2000s, after 20 years at Hewlett-Packard in various roles, including marketing. She left HP with dreams of going into business with her sister, an occupational therapist, making items such as bras for women who’ve had strokes and lost full use of an arm.
That venture didn’t work out, but the contacts Keith made in the process gave her this idea. She made the first prototype and started marketing it more than a decade ago.
The company now sends orders on a regular basis to hospitals and prosthetic shops across the country. It has taken retail orders from individual buyers, too, shipping them as far away as Canada and Australia. The full retail prices for post-surgical and compression garments range from $44 to $124, if ordered from the website.
Keith designs the items from the Wear Ease office, a few blocks northeast of Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise. The garments are manufactured by a small, female-owned business in California.
“These are very simple forms, so for the most part it’s a temporary garment,” she said. “However, I have talked to people who’ve worn them for 18 months during their recovery.”
She also branched out to compression wear, which helps to reduce the sometimes extreme swelling that can occur when a person’s lymphatic system is compromised. The compression undergarments help to reduce the fluid build-up.
That has opened up a new group of potential customers — not only those whose swelling is related to a breast surgery. She’s working on products for lower-body compression.
Keith declined to disclose sales. She said Wear Ease’s sales have grown 28 percent in the past year.
“It’s something I financed myself, I designed everything. I had no idea what I was doing ... when we first started,” she said.