As a customer services manager, Melissa Reeve’s job is to advise and encourage people.
But often the tables are turned and it’s the customers who leave Melissa feeling enlightened and inspired.
The dedicated retail professional works for mastectomy fashion firm Nicola Jane, currently in its 30th anniversary year. And she never fails to be impressed by the women who come her way, looking for swimwear and underwear tailored for them.
‘One lady, Claire Grant – who models for us – has incurable cancer and I think isn’t quite 40,’ says Melissa.
‘She’s so vibrant, she writes a blog, raises funds and inspires people – including us. She’s an incredible person who makes you realise there is so much to live for. It’s a privilege to meet people like Claire.’
Judging by the cards on the wall – layer upon layer pinned to a board – the clients have pretty strong feelings about this Chichester-based business.
One says: ‘The bra fits great and I can’t wait to wear the swimsuit. I would like to thank you again for all your help, the time you gave me and most importantly, the confidence in myself.’
Another reads: ‘Thank you for the help and care you gave me in choosing my new bras. You made it very easy for me at this difficult time.’
Sitting proudly beneath this display are Melissa and Chichester branch manager Kay Holland.
They explain that the nature of the business means their jobs, and those of their colleagues, are very different from ordinary retail positions.
‘We spend a lot of time with people, but it’s about more than measuring and fitting,’ explains Kay.
‘A lot of the time we bond with people too. We get to know customers.
‘We’re seeing them at a difficult time, when they’ve had their surgery, are dealing with that and often trying to move on.
‘Our aim is to put people at ease, show an interest in them and help to rectify some of the problems.’
Nicola Jane was set up in 1984 by Chichester-based Nichola Lawrence.
Following a friend’s breast cancer diagnosis, she realised there were limited underwear and swimwear choices for mastectomy patients.
These days it’s a very different story. The shop is stocked with every shade and many styles and products are as attractive as they are functional.
Staff are trained and have developed expertise in fitting prostheses and clothing for women who have had either one or both breasts removed, or even a lumpectomy.
The prosthesis fits into a pocket and the products are designed for security and comfort.
It’s a big learning curve for most of the clients. ‘Some ladies didn’t have a proper fitting before their diagnosis and surgery – I mean how many of us have been walking around in the wrong size for years?,’ says Kay.
‘So this really is something else to have to think about.’
Clients have coped with the trauma of a breast cancer diagnosis and then the ordeal of surgery.
‘Body image is important for people’s confidence and wellbeing and losing a breast, often as well as your hair, must be incredibly difficult,’ says Melissa. ‘The people who come to us have been through so much and we hope we can help them feel more confident.’
The staff certainly see results. ‘Women are often very nervous when they come in, but we see quite a transformation,’ says Kay.
The business has become part of the support network for women post-diagnosis and surgery.
Melissa’s work includes liaising with hospital staff and contributing to Moving Forward days.
During these sessions, breast cancer care nurses talk about side-effects of treatment and the emotional impact of diagnosis and the aftermath. Nicola Jane’s services are very much a part of this.
Melissa also visits breast cancer support groups. ‘It’s quite a privilege to be a part of this,’ she says. ‘You can spend just half-an-hour with people and see how it changes their perspective.
‘Because in the end everyone’s different, no woman really fits a regular stereotype.’
There is something of a community around Nicola Jane.
Claire Grant, from Oxfordshire, and other customers model for the catalogue. And there’s a team of clients who test the products (see Jackie’s story above).
And clients like to extend help to others. Kay knows someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer and one customer gave her some wigs for the lady to try.
‘A lot of people treat you like a friend,’ she says.
And this also seems to be the view of customers. ‘It was like having my best friend with me – you made me feel so good about myself’ another card reads.
After her friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, company founder Nichola Lawrence recognised an opportunity to provide a much-needed service for people who had undergone breast surgery.
She then spent several months visiting lingerie and swimwear shows to look for suppliers. This wasn’t easy as mastectomy products at this time involved seamstresses sewing pockets into standard bras, which did not restore confidence in someone who had just been through surgery.
The first mail order catalogue was launched in 1989 with Nichola and her husband Peter despatching orders from home. There are now three shops, as well as the mail order and design sides of the business.
Visit nicolajane.com for information.
She had faced the trauma of a breast cancer diagnosis and was about to go through the ordeal of surgery.
But Jackie Ellis from Hunston, near Chichester, (pictured left) was determined to be positive and make herself feel as good as possible.
Leading up to her mastectomy, Jackie was worried that she would no longer be able to wear feminine, pretty lingerie styles.
Like many ladies, she thought she would be left with dull underwear designed to suit a purpose rather than look attractive.
However, her breast cancer nurse introduced the 58-year-old to Nicola Jane Mastectomy Fashion.
She says: ‘One of the things I feared was the loss of my femininity, so to see all the pretty bras and lovely swimwear was great.
‘I thought ‘‘I’m not going to be strapped up in something weird’’.
‘After my operation I was determined to buy the prettiest bra I could find and I did.’
Since being given the all-clear, the mum and grandmother has decided to use her experience to help others and has become a wear-tester volunteer for Nicola Jane.
She tries on new swimwearand lingerie styles which are in the crucial design and development stage.
Jackie then offers feedback regarding fit, style, quality, support and comfort.
‘Having breast cancer was like becoming a member of a club I didn’t want to join, with a whole new language.
‘I didn’t want to get into it negatively though,’ she says.
Jackie’s views on the products are taken back to the Nicola Jane head office, where the necessary alterations can be made.
She explains: ‘It is important for Nicola Jane to use women who have had breast surgery as wear-testers as having a mastectomy can alter your entire shape including the front, side and back of your breast area.’
The former family placement social worker is pleased to be putting something back after pulling through her ordeal and being helped by so many people.
Jackie was happily leading her life as a wife and mum of a grown-up family when she discovered a lump in her right breast.
Just like many women, the journey from her diagnosis to a mastectomy was one of urgency and a bit of blur.
But she has nothing but praise for St Richard’s Hospital in Chichester.
She says: ‘My experiences were only positive and everyone was so sensitive and so kind towards me.’
Jackie decided to retire last year and is happy to give a little time to help the Nicola Jane team provide a service for other women.