Matthew Leifheit

I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.

— Abigail Adams in a letter to John Adams, 1776

Over the 29 years that she’s owned Lady Olga’s Lingerie, Jeniene Ferguson has learned that most women don’t know what they need — at least when it comes to their undergarments.

Around the store, Jeniene — a brunette 50-something with a penchant for large silver earrings and even larger silver bangles — fills many roles. She is head bra fitter, chief customer greeter and master salesperson. The world of breast support is one that requires a spiritual intermediary, and that’s the role Jeniene tries to fill; instead of allowing bra shoppers to browse the racks of rack-supporting goods, she guides them straight to the fitting room and brings the bras to them.

When customers leave, Jeniene re-shelves the goods they didn’t buy. Plus-sized bras, like the super-reinforced Statuesque Duo, go along the back wall, not far from the more common cup sizes. Pajamas — brands with names like Fleur’t With MeTM and Hanky PankyTM — hang near the standalone turnstile that twirls to display one-size-fits-most bralettes.

The store is dreamy, soundproofed by layers of soft fabric, padded bra cups and fuzzy robes. It’s a natural but potentially unnerving quietness, so Jeniene plays a local Top 40 station in the background. The only other noises in the store are Jeniene’s voice — warm, insistent — and the soft strike of her rubber-soled shoes on the linoleum floor as she hurries to and from the dressing rooms.

“Eight out of 10 women wear the wrong size bra,” Jeniene tells me as she waits on a customer one Saturday. “The other two buy their bras at Lady Olga’s. It’s an old ad we have.”

In fact, the older ads put the number of mis-fitted women at three out of five. I know that the slogan has changed only because Jeniene has kept every advertisement that the store has ever run: 29 years of marketing clips sticking out willy-nilly from three oversized binders in her office. The older, more delicate ads lie flat, pressed like flowers in transparent plastic sleeves. A script for a 30-second radio spot on KC101, folded and tucked into the cover of one binder, promises customers will feel O-o-h, la, la, terrific! In another clipping, I read a phrase Jeniene has said aloud several times: A woman’s bra is a woman’s best investment.

But at the bottom of each ad, and at the end of each radio spot, there’s always a quick mention of something else: Also specializing in Post-Mastectomy Products & Services. In other words: breastwear for the breastless.

In 1987, when Jeniene was 25, she decided she was done working for anyone but herself. She quit her job as a paralegal and opened up Lady Olga’s Lingerie and Intimate Obsessions Inc. If you consult the business license today, that’s technically the store’s full name, but Jeniene dropped the “Intimate Obsessions” from regular usage because it sounded too suggestive. These days, most people know the business simply as Lady Olga’s — which Jeniene pronounces “Lady Alga’s” thanks to her tri-state twang — or even just Lady O’s.

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The real “Lady O” — the store’s namesake — was Olga Driend, Jeniene’s mother.

Olga was what Jeniene calls a “true corsetiere,” which means that she not only sold undergarments, she was able to make them, custom, for any woman who came into her store. It was already a dying profession when Olga retired in the 1980s, but it was one she loved. So when Jeniene asked her to return to work a few years later, Olga agreed — with a few stipulations: they had to use Olga’s name (to attract her old clientele), and they had to serve groups of women who didn’t already have a specialty store in Connecticut (to attract new clientele). For Olga, who had always been on the heavier side, this meant plus-sized women, but also mastectomy patients — women who might be embarrassed to ask for help at a larger department store, or who would get subpar advice from less-experienced counselors.

“Post-Mastectomy Products & Services” are a discreet side business at Lady Olga’s even today. Casual customers come in, find a bra, buy pajamas, purchase a present for a daughter, mother, aunt or sister, and leave again without noticing anything except the goods on display. But there are signs that Lady Olga’s cares about the breast more than the bra: On the main wall, a framed poster reminds customers that a woman dies of breast cancer every 13 minutes in the United States. Next to boxes of nipple covers and adhesive bras stands an advanced reader’s copy of The Divine Secrets of the Ta-Ta Sisterhood. Next to that sits a stack of pamphlets inscribed with a quote: “Cancer might rob you of the blissful belief that tomorrow stretches into forever. In exchange, you are granted the vision to see each day as precious, a gift to be used wisely and richly. No one can take that away.”

But the sight of mastectomy prostheses is an unfriendly reminder of the fact that breast cancer can take something away from you — something more tangible than your sense of immortality. It’s the darker side of the so-called “Ta-Ta Sisterhood”: a sinister truth behind the fluff of the pink-ribbon campaign. For many women who undergo a mastectomy, the thing they lose to the cancer turns out to be inextricably tied to their sense of femininity. And that’s where Jeniene steps in.

Andrea Johnson never planned to become one of Lady Olga’s most loyal customers, even when she still had both of her breasts. In 2001, when her doctor informed her that she had stage 2 invasive lobular breast cancer, her first thought was that she would do whatever her doctors deemed necessary — lumpectomy, mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation — you name the combination, she said. I’ll do it.

Andrea wasn’t surprised to find out about the cancer. She fit the risk profile for it, which is, to be fair, “women who are aging.” But of the 50 U.S. states, Connecticut clocks in with the highest per capita incidence of breast cancer; between 2008 and 2012, the state saw 137 cases for every 100,000 women.

For Andrea, the prevalence was visible. Over a five-year span, four of the 10 women on her street in Cheshire were diagnosed with some kind of breast cancer. One of the four died from it. Andrea’s neighbors on Beaver Brook Court wondered about the possibility of environmental factors — pollutants in the water, maybe — but Andrea didn’t care about the “why” of it. All she wanted to know was how she could get it out, and when.

“You just have a bad breast,” her doctor told her when she went in for a consultation.

Andrea liked the matter-of-factness of it, but she wasn’t sure how to feel when her oncologist suggested a mastectomy and her plastic surgeon said no reconstruction. They counseled Andrea to heal first, let her body adjust and then start chemotherapy as soon as possible. During the course of chemo, her immune system would shut down, making even minor surgery a potential for major infection.

Besides, they said, there would always be time to come back for reconstructive surgery once she had recovered.

That was 14 years ago, and today, the left side of Andrea’s chest is still flat. A thin, horizontal scar, now faded, stretches across her pectoral where the doctors made the cut. Since the nipple is technically breast tissue, the doctors take that, too.

Just a few feet away from Lady Olga’s fitting rooms, there is a closet filled, floor to ceiling, with boxes of breasts. Just like their living counterparts, the prosthetic breasts vary in size, shape and weight. Especially high-end ones, which run about $450 per breast without insurance, come in nice boxes with ribbon-tie closures and fancy script lettering. The box of one model, the Amoena Sublime, unfolds to reveal a photo of the aurora borealis. Nested into the other half of the clamshell is the prosthesis, made of squishable beige silicone to allow for a lifelike texture through clothes. Online, Amoena advertises that “close physical contact, even a hug, will not reveal that you are wearing one.” Some versions, like the Sublime, have decorative features like fake nipples (with textured areolae for tactile effect), even though there’s no way to see the nipple when the prosthetic is inserted into the pocket of a mastectomy bra. Other breasts, which don’t look like breasts at all, are made of cotton, like oversized shoulder pads — good for patients who are still too tender from surgery to support the full weight of a silicone prosthesis. Still others are made of mesh — functional, sporty — so that water and sweat can flow through them with ease. The sports prostheses are heavy, looking and feeling more like hacky sacks than breasts, but Jeniene explains that their weight is the whole point, since it keeps them in place during backstrokes and golf swings.

Medical supply companies classify mastectomy prostheses as “Durable Medical Goods,” a category that also contains oxygen tanks, metal walkers and wheelchairs. Before Lady Olga’s, women in Connecticut had limited options. They could either walk around a sterile supply warehouse, passing unsexy reminders of mortality, old age or infirmity, or they could return to the hospital where they had the surgery — a place that might hold negative memories of their chemotherapy. Either way, there was rarely anyone around who was knowledgeable enough about breasts to give advice.

Sometimes, Jeniene’s customers are bashful. First-timers, fresh from surgery, call ahead to schedule their visit for a slow period in the day. Sometimes they cry. Other times, Jeniene will have to coax them into even looking at themselves in the mirror. But by the time Jeniene has gotten them into a mastectomy bra — lean over, shake yourself in, now stand — and they’ve seen themselves in their clothing, something always shifts.

“By the time I put them in a prosthesis and a bra — oh my God, they’re walkin’ outta here, their scarf’s stuffed in their pocket, you know, their shoulders are back, chest out … They thank me. They say, ‘Oh God, you’ve made me normal again,’ and I say, ‘No I didn’t. You were already normal. I just made you even.’”

The earliest known record of breast cancer comes from a document known as the Ebers Papyrus, which is believed to date back to around 1500 B.C. All those centuries ago, an Egyptian doctor filled 110 pages with medical and herbal knowledge, describing the many maladies he had witnessed and the ways he knew to cure them. One illness, which he called “bulging tumors of the breast,” had no known cure. It was fatal. Always.

About a millennium later, around 460 B.C., the famed Greek physician Hippocrates came up with a name for growths like these: cancer. Latin for “crab,” the term derived itself from the crablike appearance of tumors, which would extend forth with leggy tendrils as they expanded.

The irony of breast cancer’s history is that an advancement in medical knowledge led to what can only accurately be described as a period of horrific procedures. In the 18th century, medical professionals realized that these tumors were not a symptom of the disease — they were the disease. With this knowledge, the idea came about to cure the cancer by removing the breast itself. In theory, this idea — an early precursor to the modern mastectomy — was absolutely revolutionary. In practice, like most procedures pre-anesthesia, it was nightmarish.

Without general anesthesia, women would endure the amputation of their breasts with little to distract them from the pain except a bit to chew or a handkerchief to stifle their screams. There are, understandably, few first-hand accounts of the procedure from the patient’s perspective, but one German surgeon warned physicians, “Many females can stand the operation with the greatest courage and without hardly moaning at all. Others, however, make such a clamor that they may dishearten even the most undaunted surgeon and hinder the operation.”

Abigail Adams Smith, the only daughter of American revolutionaries John and Abigail Adams, was one of these unlucky women. Nabby, as she was known to most, first noticed her cancer in May 1810, when she felt a lump in her right breast, just above the nipple. It was painful, she wrote in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush months later, and felt “like a burning some times an itching & at time a deep darting pain through the Breast, but without any discolouration at all.” Within a few weeks, the most talented surgeons in the young country were assembled in the upstairs bedroom of the Adams’ residence. With Nabby Smith fully awake, the men held her down and cut her open, digging out the breast and cauterizing the wound with a hot iron as they worked. In all, the procedure took no more than 20 minutes, but dressing the wound took another hour. Unfortunately, though her health at first seemed to ameliorate, Nabby fell ill and died that spring.

Grisly breast amputations like these continued in a variety of ways until the late 19th century, when Dr. William Halsted, Yale College class of 1874, pioneered a new method. The surgery, known as the Halsted Radical Mastectomy, utilized new technologies (including, mercifully, general anesthesia), to remove the cancer “at its root” (thus the “radical” aspect, from the Latin radix). Halsted, who noted that some women would die of cancer even after a mastectomy, thought it was necessary to remove more than just a woman’s breast tissue — the pectoral muscles underneath had to go as well.

While these surgeries were less psychologically traumatic than a waking procedure, women would leave Halsted’s table disfigured, nothing but a thin layer of skin covering their ribs. But the surgery seemed to work, at least at first, and so it became a canonical operation — so much so that even in the mid-1970s, the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer were condensed into the “one-step process.” A woman who might have cancer would come in for a biopsy, and if her tissue sample came back cancerous, would awaken to find one or both breasts gone.

Women’s bodies lay naked under the harsh surgical lamps, while men decided autocratically: remove the breast, or let it stay?

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On Nov. 8, 2001, just one month after her doctor diagnosed her with a “bad breast,” Andrea was waking up from surgery.

The procedure she had received was a unilateral mastectomy, or the removal of one breast, leaving the other, noncancerous breast in place (except in preventative surgeries, doctors do not perform bilateral mastectomies unless both breasts are cancerous).

Andrea was surprised at first at the lack of physical pain; her doctors informed her that once the breast is gone, there aren’t very many nerve endings left in the chest cavity.

Another surprise: the surgery’s emotional effect.

The hospital supplied her with a pocketed camisole and a cotton puff to fill the space where her breast had been. Andrea, who had leapt eagerly at the opportunity to distance herself from the cancer, who had insisted on the earliest possible date for her mastectomy, now found herself avoiding her reflection. Home from the hospital, it took her two or three days to take a shower or change the bandages. Looking at or touching her flattened chest meant confronting what was missing.

Technically speaking, she could have lost more — her other breast or even her life, if the cancer had metastasized and spread to her bones or her brain or her blood before it was discovered — but this didn’t make it easier to cope with her flattened chest in those first weeks.

It took Andrea two months to come to Lady Olga’s for her prosthesis.

Jeniene, as always, gave her a once-over to evaluate her size.

“Pretty bad, huh?” Andrea remembered saying with a chuckle.

Jeniene waved her off, made a few measurements, and disappeared into the closet. A few minutes later, she returned with a few boxes.

“Let’s see what you like best.”

Olga’s most famous sales move was to eyeball a woman and hand her the bra that would fit her perfectly, no measurements required. When the customer would ask to know the size of the bra, Lady O would reply: Your size. If the customer asked again, Olga let her in on the golden rule of bra ownership: Listen, if it fits you, just tear off the tag. Jeniene, who wears a size 36B like I do, says no one wants to be the size they are. Olga’s knowledge of this — and of each customer’s individual insecurities — was one of the many things that made her so good at her job.

Another facet of it was that Olga didn’t really care who her customers were. She didn’t care where they came from, or if even if they had been born as women in the first place. In the era before online shopping, men who liked to dress in drag had limited options; Olga was a reliable one. The only questions she ever asked were: “In a bag or a box? Cash or charge?” And over time, Olga became the gatekeeper for a small cadre of men around town — professors, businessmen, pastors’ sons — who had no one else to consult.

Jeniene knew these men only by their first names — John, Dan or Mike — but would intercept their calls and help them schedule a visit. Olga’s male customers came early in the morning or late at night for bra fittings or just for advice. Olga was more than happy to sit and flip through Spiegel catalogue, pointing out the dresses that would flatter his frame and circling the ones he wanted to order. The clothing would then ship to Lady Olga’s and Jeniene would call to let him know his parcel had arrived. He, in turn, would swing by — looking the part of a husband picking up a negligee for his wife — and return home to unwrap his new clothing in private. Every year on Oct. 28, Olga’s birthday, the thank-you gifts would arrive.

Not too long after Lady Olga’s opened its doors, Lady O received her own diagnosis: stage 4 bladder cancer. Her doctors recommended a complete bladder removal, but Olga politely declined. She could not go without something so functional and essential. Instead, she chose a rigorous schedule of chemotherapy, and contrary to her doctors’ expectations, the cancer began to retreat. Olga’s tumor, which was about the size of a grapefruit when it was discovered, had shrunk to the circumference of a silver dollar. Jeniene, heavily pregnant with her second child, breathed a sigh of relief.        

On July 25, 1993, not long after receiving the good news of her shrinking tumor, Olga collapsed at home. At the age of 73, she was dead of a massive heart attack.

Jeniene is crouched at the back wall, calling out long strings of numbers to her assistant, who scribbles them down on a piece of printer paper — the usual Saturday afternoon inventory check. In their code, each cup size is signified by a word: B-cups are Boy, C-cups are Charlie, D-cups are David, DD-cups are Double Davids.

Things aren’t the way they used to be, Jeniene tells me. The stores used to send salesmen out to do inventory for you. You got to know each other, to have a personal bond with the companies.

When Olga died, there wasn’t enough room for the mourners in the chapel. Everyone showed up: friends, customers, neighbors … Even the sales reps who supplied the store. Jeniene buried Olga like the true corsetiere she was, a pink measuring tape draped around her shoulders.

Lady Olga’s Lingerie was always meant to be a mother-daughter business, and in many ways, despite Lady O’s long absence, it still is. These days, Olga sits in a black-and-gold frame behind the cash register, watching over the store with a bemused smile like she’s the patron saint of breast encasement. Every now and then, Jeniene puts a new obituary in the New Haven Register, something short and rhyming like the 2013 entry, published on the 20th anniversary of Lady O’s death:

I strive in life to do the things worthwhile, and looking up I see your smile.

Always In My Thoughts Forever In My Heart

    JENIENE

Nowadays, it’s Jeniene who receives the gifts from thankful customers: flowers — big mums — arrive every year on Mother’s Day from her mastectomy patients. Women call, stop by just to say hi, remember to ask about Jeniene’s children. Doctors and nurses will jot down the address to Lady Olga’s and direct new patients right to her door.

These days, Jeniene says, lots of women get reconstructive surgery, but not as many as you might expect. It’s hard to go back to the hospital that took your breast away — sometimes the same hospital that gave you painful doses of poison to cure you. The body tends to hold on to traumatic memories like that, and Jeniene says many women decide not to go back, even those like Andrea, who are bothered by their asymmetry.

But nothing is permanent. Now that she’s divorced, Andrea says she’s considering dating again, and jokes that she might finally schedule the reconstruction she was promised 15 years ago. Maybe. Until she decides, Andrea does what she’s done each morning for the past decade and a half: She slips her prosthesis into the sleeve of her mastectomy bra and clips it behind her back. And each day she leaves home, she follows Jeniene’s go-to advice: Head up, shoulders out.