October 25, 2007 Shifting Careers New Ventures Help Fight the Frustrations of Fighting Breast Cancer By MARCI ALBOHER
Rachel Troxell and Kristin Dudley joined an unlikely sorority when they started a company called Lymphedivas to sell fashionable compression sleeves for women suffering from lymphedema — businesses that owe their inspiration to a brush with breast cancer.
Banu Ozden is in that sorority, too. She started a company, Smart Medical Consumer, soon after her second cancer diagnosis in 2005, because she said she wanted to help others avoid the frustration she experienced in managing the costs and paperwork associated with her illness.
While no organization tracks the number of businesses in this niche, experts who follow women-owned businesses say the numbers are huge. Nell Merlino, president of Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence, a provider of microloans to women-owned businesses, said that 6 of the 100 businesses selected for her company’s “Make Mine a Million” program were founded by breast cancer survivors.
Because survival rates have increased sharply in recent years, there are now 2.3 million breast cancer survivors in the country, according to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, one of the largest breast cancer research and advocacy organizations. Many of those survivors say they are committed to doing something to ease the ordeal of others with the disease or to solve a particular problem that they encountered in their own treatment.
“Breast cancer survivors are the largest group of cancer survivors in the country,” said Katrina McGhee, vice president for marketing at Komen for the Cure. “And the disease gets to the heart of womanhood. Will they still be attractive? Will they still be the same? There is often a very visual representation of your battle, particularly if you have to go through a mastectomy, which is very different than something on the inside of your body, which can be a more private battle. It is simply life-altering.”
Ms. Troxell, 37, learned she had breast cancer three years ago. After going through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, she said the hardest part was learning that she had lymphedema, a condition that affects a sizable number of breast cancer survivors and causes their limbs to swell with fluid. “With the cancer, there was a clear path to follow, and I knew there was an end to it,” she said. “With lymphedema, you are stuck with it, and it affects the quality of your life.”
Ms. Troxell said her treatment for lymphedema required her to wear a compression sleeve constantly, leading to questions from everyone she encountered. Ms. Troxell, a videographer and graphic designer, said she became consumed with finding an alternative to the drab, unsightly and uncomfortable sleeve.
“I called some companies that made the ugly garment, asking if there were other options, and they all said no,” she said. “It is just middle-aged white guys making them, and they aren’t the customer.” Her obsession led her to Ms. Dudley, then a 22-year-old fashion student at Drexel University in Philadelphia. The two started brainstorming about designing a more fashionable and comfortable compression sleeve.
Ms. Dudley immediately warmed to the idea because her grandmother had lymphedema and refused to wear her own compression sleeves.
They are now partners in Lymphedivas, which was officially born in 2006 after they won third place in a business plan contest sponsored by Drexel University.
Ms. Ozden, a computer scientist whose cancer was diagnosed in 2001, said that from the time she started dealing with the disease, she wanted to design a system that would make it easier for patients to keep track of their medical costs and also help them find errors in billing and reimbursement records.
In 2005, when teaching computer science at the University of Southern California, she was told that she again had cancer and that this time the disease had spread. Hearing the word “metastatic” was her biggest fear. “When it happened, it was incredibly emotional,” she said. “Western medicine puts statistics on you and from that moment, it is considered not curable. It was the worst time of my life.”
She took a leave of absence from her job and moved to New York so that she could be treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and within a month of her diagnosis, she said she was feeling well enough to start making plans again.
Once again in the morass of medical bills, she knew she wanted to proceed with her company. She started Smart Medical Consumer with her own funds and investments from friends and family members. She works out of her apartment in New York City and has eight employees, some of whom live in Turkey, where Ms. Ozden was born and the source of some of her company’s financing. To provide income until Smart Medical Consumer turns a profit, Ms. Ozden does consulting work in computer science and technology.
Leigh Hurst, 37, said she never intended to start a business when her cancer was diagnosed in 2004. She just wanted to spread the word among her friends and other young women that they needed to be serious about breast self-examination. “Basically, I was telling everyone I met to ‘feel their boobies,’ and when I walked with a group of friends in the Avon breast cancer walk in New York, I set up a one-page Web site, put ‘Feel Your Boobies’ on our T-shirts and printed an extra hundred to sell,” she said. Ms. Hurst sold all the T-shirts within minutes and donated the proceeds to Komen for the Cure.
Her group was filmed by the “Today” show and when she returned home to Harrisburg, Pa., she started filling orders that were coming in through the Web site. She also started getting requests to speak at colleges. After much deliberation, she concluded that her company should be a nonprofit and that T-shirts were merely a vehicle to raise awareness. She put her parents to work in her house, filling orders and handling customer service, and quit her job in online education, replacing it with freelance work.
Kim Carlos’s story has a similar ring. During her treatment for breast cancer, Ms. Carlos, 36, had a weekly lunch at Nordstrom department store in Kansas City, Mo., with three other relatively young women with breast cancer. Those lunches formed the basis of a book, “Nordie’s at Noon,” which the women published themselves. Their grass-roots marketing was so successful that the book was bought and redistributed by Da Capo Press.
Ms. Carlos’s activism brought her so many requests for speaking and advocacy work that she decided to leave her position at a law firm in Kansas City to dedicate herself to motivational speaking and issues-oriented public relations.
As the primary breadwinner in her family, Ms. Carlos said she realized that the move was risky, but she thought that she could always go back to practicing law. “We didn’t go through this to change one life; we did this to change thousands,” she said. Her husband left the business world several years ago to become a firefighter, a job that might not pay well, but does provide the family with health care coverage.
Optimistic as these women are, they are also realists. Ms. Ozden is prepared for investors to ask questions about her future “Our plan is that before 2010, the company can be independent from me,” she said. “I am hoping to be around at least until then.” Ms. Troxell is undergoing treatment for a recurrence and this time the cancer is metastatic. And since “Nordies at Noon” was published, two of Ms. Carlos’s co-authors have died.