Cherie Mathews has a lot of roles: She’s a wife, a mother, a friend, a business owner, a social supporter, an innovator, an avid motorcycle rider, a breast cancer survivor, and the inventor of Heal in Comfort. Cherie is responsible for how thousands of patients heal after surgery due to cancer and invasive operations, and she’s accomplishing it fashionably, with a shirt, a few accessories and a can-do attitude.
Cherie was living with her husband and children in Florida in 2000 when she received the news that she had breast cancer. Cherie recalls the words of the doctor sounding muffled as he proceeded to talk to her after the diagnosis about what to expect. Cherie was in disbelief: healthy, active and only 40 years old didn’t make her a typical at-risk candidate. After the original shock, Cherie took charge and opted for a double mastectomy instead of the Oncologist suggested trial drugs. She was instructed to bring one of her husband’s shirts to dress in after the operation, as she would need loose clothing with a front closure, and some shoe laces. She wasn’t given any more information and didn’t know the questions to ask about an experience she knew nothing about. The suggestion surprised and puzzled her, so she chose to bring a hoodie instead of a shirt because “the thought of wearing my husband’s dress shirt after having my breast removed was NOT OK!”
Cherie woke up after surgery with a different body, breast-less, cut flesh and drain tubes attached to her chest. It doesn’t matter how often we hear the stories, nothing prepares you for when it happens to you, and Cherie was in shock. What unraveled next didn’t help the situation. The nurse came in to help Cherie get dressed. She found the hoodie and got mad at Cherie for not bringing something easier to get dressed in. The zipper could irritate her chest and was not appropriate. Cherie asked about the drain pouches just laying next to her in bed. The nurse replied that she would have them attached for two to four weeks. Cherie pondered, if a sprained elbow receives a sling, and if a man was to have surgery and have his manhood altered I bet he wouldn’t be asked to bring a skirt to go home in after surgery. That just wouldn’t be right! Why isn’t anything provided for a woman after a mastectomy for one of the most invasive and life changing operations in her life?
Cherie was not faced only with an invasive operation, dealing with a life threatening condition, and the challenge to define herself as a woman again in spite of the loss of her breasts, but she also was in conflict with what basic post-operative medical care should be. Cherie got sick on the only thing to wear when trying to get dressed because the pain was so intense and any movement was very painful. She went home in a “mutilated body” and stained hoodie. The whole experience was humiliating and infuriated her so that she made a promise: “If I can change this for other women, I will.”
Once at home she withdrew for days, laying in that same stained hoodie without for anything to get changed in. Cherie wrote in her “Shadow Story.”
When I first looked in the mirror after surgery, I was shocked when I saw my scars and drain tubes. My mind started casting doubt on survival and whether I would look normal again. I went outside for my first walk after surgery, and I saw my shadow on the sidewalk. Unlike the mirror, that reminded me of all the things that were right. I was alive and still able to cast a shadow on this earth. From that moment on I would battle for only positive thoughts. The mirror no longer dictated how I was doing. So when you are able to go for a walk look for your shadow and remember, it’s there because you’re here.
Cherie never spoke of breast cancer afterwards or about what she had gone through. It was spiritually challenging. The desire to be alive, the vibrancy of what looks lively, conflicts with a broken body fighting to repair itself. Cherie describes that tunnel of fear to which cancer takes you. Even after the body recovers, the mind is still struggling. It’s only 10 years later in a quiet moment of prayer, she realized that helping others is what matters the most and that she must share her story. The fear of cancer can be paralyzing but she wanted to inspire women to fight. Getting over her own fears was the first step toward helping others to do the same. She had survived cancer and was living happily with her family but she didn’t feel completely satisfied, there was a growing desire to do more.
Cherie moved in Austin in 2009 and was impressed by the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation in the city. She was inspired to follow her burning desire to help other patients with the creation of the healincomfort post-op recovery shirt and kit that would be given to breast cancer patients to go home with. This was something that was not offered to her after her operation, but would make a huge difference in the way a woman would feel and recover from surgery. It would include a super soft medical device shirt, a surgical drain pouch, and a lanyard to hold the drains allowing for an independent and hands free shower.
She still didn’t have a prototype made when she received a request for an interview with the TV Station, FOX. What was just a concept and a dream became a reality. Not only did Cherie have to come up with a prototype, she also, for the first time, had to speak publicly about her experience and announce that her breasts had been removed and reconstructed. There was no going back, she had to see this through. The stigma of cancer was still present, but to inspire women to fight was the priority.
Cherie was raised to feel more comfortable playing basketball or riding a Harley to Davidson than toying with a needle and thread. She improvised the best she could to make the first healincomfort shirt. She bought an athletic running top at a local sports store. The material had to be designed to breathe better than regular fabric so moisture doesn’t stay on the body, and is more comfortable to wear for long periods of time if you need to stay in bed.
The shirt would have to be easy to put on; Velcro-like fasteners so no buttons to mess with, 4 internal pockets for the surgical drains, easy to wash, and fast to dry. “I was so concerned the stick on velcro-like fasteners would fall off that my hands were shaking as I unfastened them in front of the cameras,” recalls Cherie. But the interview with FOX was a hit, and the first of many. Cherie’s natural ability to connect with others, and the courage to speak about a delicate issue resonated with women around her and their male counterparts.
Cherie created Heal in Comfort as an LLC to sell the shirts while donating as much as possible to hospitals and organizations. The goal is to have each breast cancer patient go home with a Heal in Comfort shirt. Her previous career was in Research and Development for IBM, and she had limited experience in the field she was entering now. For 23 years she was surrounded by rock ‘n roll artists as her sister Renee was a set design and image consultant for musicians. The idea of Woodstock appealed to her. How, at a time when there were no cell phones, no emails, did so many people gathered at Woodstock and make one of the most legendary music events happen? Her Mom told her, “If people truly believe strongly in something they will make it grow.
The other issue was that Cherie wanted to start a business with as limited resources as perhaps a college student- a social experiment to see if it’s possible to stay alive as a business and not get swallowed up as 98% of startups do. “I’m a bootstrapped business” is one of her favorite leitmotivs. She started her company with $1,000 and made wise decisions to keep going without investors, and stayed in control of the operations. She sometimes had to say ‘no’ to opportunities but she also owned all of the decisions. Being bootstrap also attracts the organic type of individuals with a heart and vision that Cherie believes will benefit the company in the long run, and therefore her customers and the patients. Cherie tries to accomplish as much as she can frugally, learning mostly from trial and error, to reverse engineering how successful companies survived, and always thinking way outside the box. Cherie prides herself in the fantastic individuals she has met since she started her company healincomfort. They connected with her because they believe in what she’s trying to accomplish, not to take advantage of the next lucrative idea. Of course money is important, but there is a lot that can be accomplished on stamina and determination alone. “Bootstrap.”
“I have come home some days after working 17 hours and told my husband that I can’t do it anymore, it’s too much, too hard,” Cherie confesses, “but then the phone rings and a woman on the other side of the country tells me how my healincomfort shirt gave her so much comfort. She could go home from the hospital and recover in comfort and dignity, knowing the person who made the healincomfort shirt went through the same thing she’s going through, so I keep going!” At the end of the day, what matters most to Cherie is being able to make people feel normal again so they can keep going and heal themselves, spiritually and physically with “Dignity”
Cherie has hundreds of heartwarming stories to share about patients and their experience with the healincomfort shirt. “Mastectomy hurts!” is one of the slogans on her website. There is nothing glamorous about cancer, surgery or life-threatening diseases and no one deserves to lose their dignity and sense of self because of it.
Cherie is now in her third year as a Certified Woman Owned Business owner of Heal in Comfort. The company reaches out to men and women; yes, men have mastectomies too, and the shirt also is available in blue. She is the visionary and advisor for the nonprofit the organization Heal in Comfort 4 a Change 501(c)3 that focuses on making the Heal in Comfort shirt available in as many hospitals as possible not only for cancer patients, but for organ transplants, heart surgery and other invasive operations as well. She owns the patent for the shirt and three trademarks. She has sold 3,000 Heal in Comfort shirts across the country and donated to seven major hospitals in Texas. Celebrities have endorsed her shirt by using it or by delivering them to patients in hospitals. Giuliana Rancic used her Heal in Comfort shirt when she went through breast cancer, and the NFL Saints punter Thomas Morstead, whose mother went through the same frustration Cherie did during her post-op experience, was proud to purchase Heal in Comfort shirts and give to his local hospitals and patients on National TV. Cherie’s venture is doing well but it’s not taken for granted. “Be thankful,” she reminds you. “Be grateful, stay optimistic and encourage others. Be in the world so you can make a 0 difference in it. You can’t make a difference if you don’t put yourself out there.”
Raising awareness and funds is where you can find Cherie, maybe wearing one of my favorite T-shirts that encourages everyone to “Be Brave, Fight like a girl!” Cherie is loud and she purposefully and consciously wants people to notice her message and the patients she represents. Cherie is not resting. She’s already thinking about reaching out to Military and VA hospitals, and writing a book that would gather the best advice from the brightest Austin entrepreneurs Austin Texas has to offer. She continues encouraging and counseling other entrepreneurs to build their own businesses successfully, survive the 98% failure threat, chase after their dreams, and don’t give up until you’ve reached them. Cherie has true admiration and pride for Austin: “This is the city of entrepreneurship and innovation. I want my company to be here; I want Austin to be recognized for the power of innovation that its people hold. Take care of your own city first, then branch out across the country.”
I’d love to describe Cherie to you but I wouldn’t do her justice. She’s the type of person you must meet, she’s the experience in herself. I can only promise you two things when you do: hot pink lipstick and a heart of gold.
Article originally posted in the February 2013 issue of the Austin Phoenix Magazine.
Article by Paola Aguillon-Brashear