When diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 at the age of 69, Elizabeth Silver had enough to worry about. After undergoing a procedure to remove a lump under her breast, the last thing she wanted to concern herself with were unnecessary side effects from radiation therapy.
“Frankly, I was terrified,” she said. “I was terrified of radiation.”
Women who are diagnosed with breast cancer face a unique set of possible complications. While undergoing radiation treatment, they often suffer from soreness, inflamed skin and even open wounds from skin rubbing in the treated area.
“Women typically get so sore that they are actually raw underneath their breasts, and then if they perspire or if their breast rubs against the skin, it’s really, really painful,” said the Scarsdale resident.
Determined to minimize any irritation and pain, Silver decided to fashion herself a solution. Sewing a piece of jersey fabric to a strap that she could then place around her neck, Silver created a cushioned sling that sat underneath her breast to keep her skin dry and prevent the adjacent areas from rubbing together.
“I don’t know why I made the sling,” said the 77-year-old entrepreneur. “It just seemed logical at that point.”
By the end of her treatment, Silver said her skin was only “slightly pinker” from the effects of radiation. “It made a huge difference,” she said of her solution.
When Silver wore her handcrafted sling to her doctor’s office at White Plains Hospital, her radiologist and oncologist were impressed with it. They described other patients who had tried various but unsuccessful solutions, everything from tying fabric around their midsection to making a vest from their husbands’ underwear.
“They said, ‘Wow, you should market these,’” she recalled. “It was like I was a hero. I had no idea.”
It took Silver five years of research and design work before she ultimately launched her company in 2014.
“It was slow,” she said of the beginnings of her business, ComfortSling. “It’s very hard to introduce a product that people aren’t asking for, because they don’t know it exists.”
Initially, Silver scoured the breast cancer blogosphere, searching for women discussing the problems for which she had a solution for. She commented on those posts, describing her products and their uses. Much of her business now is based on referrals and word of mouth, both from customers and doctors, she said.
Silver’s ComfortSling allows the breast to rest on a soft cushion, allowing air to circulate beneath the breast while wicking away perspiration to keep the sore areas dry. The cushion also prevents chafing of the skin beneath the breast and antimicrobial properties discourage bacterial growth. The nonstretch, adjustable strap prevents any pressure on the sore areas beneath the breast or on the neck and shoulder.
Silver said she had “very little” in the way of startup costs because she made hundreds of her first slings with her own hands and a sewing machine. “I worked them and worked them and worked them until I got it right,” she said.
The slings were later manufactured in New Jersey, but high costs forced Silver to switch her operations to a plant in China.
“It looks simple, and it is simple, but it’s time consuming,” she said of the design.
She now offers her original single slings along with double slings, which fit over the shoulders like a vest, and bra inserts. Since its launch, Silver has sold more than 2,000 units of her products. “I don’t know where these people are coming from,” she said.
Silver sells her ComfortSlings through her comfortslings.com website, Amazon and two online catalogs for cancer patients, Lymphodema Products and Lots to Live For. The double sling sells for $35, while the single sling retails at $17.95. A cushioned bra insert, her most popular item, is priced at $10.75.
Though designed for the relatively small number of women who are undergoing radiation after develping lumps under their breast, her creations are proving to be most popular with a demographic Silver didn’t expect.
“By far the largest number of slings that I sell are for women other than breast cancer (patients).” The majority of women who purchase the sling are obese, she said, and use it to relieve chafing. Silver said others use the sling following breast augmentation surgery or for skin conditions.
“I had no idea this problem is as universal as it is,” she said.
While starting her own breast sling business was not something she imagined herself doing, Silver said working with her hands comes naturally. Prior to her venture, she worked as an expressionist painter and owned a studio in Manhattan for 20 years. In Westchester County, her work has been exhibited at the Katonah Museum, the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers and the Neuberger Museum in Purchase. She has had solo shows of her figurative expressionist works in Connecticut and Manhattan.
“This is my experience,” she said, gesturing to a painting hanging on a wall in her Scarsdale home. Holding the ComfortSling in her hand, she said, “I don’t do this.”
In the two years she has been in business, her company already has gone through a major rebranding. Recently the name of her product was changed to ComfortSling from its original title, BreastComfort.
“The first thing I found was that I couldn’t use that name in an email” address, she said of BreastComfort. “My cable company wouldn’t let me use it; Gmail wouldn’t let me use it.”
Some women told Silver they didn’t feel comfortable researching her product in public or in their offices or having the products delivered to them with the company’s former name on the package. Now, Silver said, she goes out of her way to leave the word “breast” out of any communication.
“I keep it out of the text, because I’ll get knocked off as spam,” she said of her email correspondence.
“There is a stigma,” she added. “There’s a stigma against, sometimes, women’s bodies, women’s problems.”
As for the future of her business Silver, who donates 5 percent of all sales to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, doesn’t envision her products being sold in retail stores.
“There are a couple of hospitals that will actually purchase them for their patients, and they’ll give them particularly to the patients who can’t afford it,” she said, “and my fantasy still is to find a foundation or some funding so they could be distributed to women who need them.”