ST. JOSEPH — Roberta Peregrine owns Second to Nature, a business that specializes in customized merchandise for breast cancer patients.
Don't let Second to Nature's size fool you. Its new building, sandwiched between Fireside Gifts and Verizon Wireless on the Belt Highway in St. Joseph, has the girth of a one-car garage, but it provides a life-changing service.
Second to Nature is the only certified post-mastectomy merchandiser in St. Joseph. From post-surgical cami tops with pockets for drainage tubes to a full range of silicone breast prostheses, the shop helps rebuild what cancer has damaged.
Owner and certified fitter Roberta Peregrine started the post-mastectomy business at the urging of her sister, a post-mastectomy vendor in Virginia. Peregrine said she initially balked at the suggestion; she knew from her mother's battle with cancer how frightening the illness could be. Eventually, her desire to help people overrode her hesitations.
Peregrine's first client reaffirmed her decision. Like the majority of Second to Nature's patrons, the customer had not had breast reconstruction surgery. She instead chose to place prostheses in a pocketed post-mastectomy bra. Peregrine went out to the woman's home in Kansas to do the customized fitting.
"She looked in the mirror and said, 'I look like myself again.' When I came home I told my kids, 'I know why I'm doing this,'" Peregrine said.
Over the years, the post-mastectomy business grew from an at-home business to a small back room on Frederick Avenue to its new location on the Belt, which sees more foot traffic than its previous spot. Doctors' offices recommend patients to Second to Nature, as do Peregrine's satisfied customers.
Ideally, clients first come to Second to Nature before the surgery so they can buy the post-surgical clothes to wear home from the hospital. They will come in a second time about three weeks later to be fitted, a process that takes about an hour, Peregrine said.
To be a certified fitter, Peregrine has to take continuing education classes through the American Board of Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics and Pedorthics. Much of the fitting process depends on the amount of tissue removed. An oblong-shaped prosthesis covers gaps left by a removed lymph node. Others look more like the silicone on an episode of "Dr. 90210."
Oddly enough, when women have the opportunity to choose their breasts, they go smaller. Peregrine tells her clients they can be Dolly Parton or Twiggy. Her clients opt for the supermodel's chest even though the Amoena line of prostheses the store sells are 35 percent lighter than natural tissue and will be supported by underwire, not muscle.
Leechia Jones, a five-year client of Second to Nature, described the fitting process as thorough and individualized.
"This is a kind of embarrassing kind of thing that you go through, but she helps you relax and makes you feel comfortable," Jones said.
Under the Women's Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998, health insurance companies are required to pay for post-mastectomy products if they covered the cost of the mastectomy. Most companies will cover a set of prostheses every other year and between two and eight post-mastectomy bras per year.
The post-mastectomy bras resemble the ones in a department store, with varieties from lace to leopard print to strapless styles.
Unlike the department store lingerie departments, however, Second to Nature offers a personal touch. As a 34-year survivor of breast cancer, Judy Giddens went through her share of cookie-cutter chain stores.
"When you go to the department store — and they were experienced fitters — you don't get the personal attention like you do a smaller environment," Giddens said.
The attention of a smaller store also helps when clients react to the customized fitting. Surgery, especially one that targets part of a woman's identity, can be traumatic. When customers cry, Peregrine offers another small service with large ramifications: a hug.