By Scott Scanlon
Eileen Tramont chokes up when she talks about what new customers ask when they first come into her business, AuNaturel Boutique in Amherst.
Most are women who recently had breast cancer surgery.
“There is a confidence issue, being comfortable in your clothing,” Tramont says. “Many women come in here and say, ‘I don’t even want to look in the mirror, because it’s too hard to keep living that every day, every day, every day.’ It’s a constant reminder. So to be able to put a bra on and put a prosthetic on, it’s hard. A lot of tears are shed here, as you can well imagine. You can cover it up and put clothing on and it goes away until you get undressed at night. But there’s so much value in what happens here, in terms of them being able to go out into the world.”
The boutique caters to women who have had lumpectomies or mastectomies, and its website, aunaturelboutique.com, includes this message: “In Bravery there is Beauty!”
Tramont’s shop sits next to a physical therapy office off the lobby of Western New York Breast Health, off Sheridan Drive in Amherst. She rents space from Dr. Vivian L. Lindfield, a breast surgeon who owns the center, which also includes radiology and other breast health services.
Bras, workout clothes and swimsuits greet boutique visitors when they walk into AuNaturel. Two nearby rooms allow for private fittings.
The business was started more than three decades ago, when a breast cancer survivor was looking for the kinds of products AuNaturel sells but was unable to find them. She sold the business in the early 1980s to Tramont’s brothers, pharmacists Robert and Kevin O’Leary, owners of Parkview Health in the Town of Tonawanda. They sold it to Tramont in 2006 and she moved into the Breast Health Center after it opened three years later.
Q. How does a fitting work?
A. The concept of a prosthetic is it fits inside the pocket of a bra. A bra normally has a cup to it, but there’s no backing to the cup, so all of our bras actually have a backing to them and the prosthetic slips inside. For swimming, it becomes a little bit of a problem because you don’t want to put a prosthetic in your swimsuit and it just falls out, so our swimwear is specially designed so the bra is built into the top of the suit and has pockets to hold the prosthetic.
Q. Does it make women more comfortable when they go through something as harrowing as breast cancer and they see you’re selling swimsuits?
A. Yes. A lot of our women are doing a lot of aerobics and the doctor’s emphasizing exercise. You don’t have to give that up just because you’re going to be self-conscious about how you’re going to be able to do it. That’s one piece of it. That isn’t their main concern when they come in here, but it’s certainly a pleasant surprise.
Q. How do you and your staff work to help your patrons overcome the confidence issue?
A. Getting the fit correct. If it’s a mastectomy, it’s just one side, the challenge is matching you out to your other side, to make it look like the surgery never happened. If it’s a lumpectomy, sometimes breast tissue changes depending what type of treatment you’re on. Radiation can change the way that breast fits into the cup of a bra and maybe you wouldn’t be able to fill a bra, so you put a tight shirt on and you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and micromanaging. In that case, the manufacturers have come up with these thin shells that can fit into the pockets of the bras … and this makes up the difference between what might have been removed from the surgery.
With reconstruction, there’s always issues when a breast is reconstructed it’s not always the size you want it to be right out of surgery. It’s always a process. How do you deal with that? Do you just wear bulky tops? There’s a way we can help them through that.
Q. What questions do most customers ask when they first come in?
A. We get a lot of people trying to figure out if they want to do reconstructive surgery or if they just want to have a mastectomy and wear a prosthetic. It’s a very personal choice. What we do is try to guide them in what we know: This is what a prosthetic looks like, this is what it feels like, these are the risks with reconstruction. Certainly their doctors are making them aware of that, as well. They want to know the insurance aspect of it. Insurance covers the bulk of the cost. There’s sometimes co-pays. Then there are the more minor things like care: Is it going to take an hour out of my day every day because I’m scrubbing it? It’s not. You rinse it under water and put it right back in the bra.
Q. How often do their husbands or boyfriends come in, and what are some of the reactions you’ve experienced?
A. All good. Obviously, you embrace it, because the more support you have when you’re going through something like that, the better it is. Sometimes they lurk outside in the second waiting room. I don’t know if it’s their discomfort or if they just don’t want to make other people in the shop uncomfortable. And some come right into the dressing room and are holding her hand through the whole process. It’s beautiful to see.