July 14, 2008

Women With Cancer Find Help at Local Store: Owner, Survivor Quit Job to Follow Dream

By Debbie Kelley, The Gazette, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Jul. 14--Bobbi Van Riper went on a scavenger hunt after a bout with breast cancer in 1996. She tried to locate a nice wig to cover her balding scalp, compression garments to reduce swelling in her left arm, a swimsuit that fit her post-lumpectomy figure and a remedy for her varicose veins.

She eventually found what she wanted, but, as with a scavenger hunt, she had to go from place to place to get everything on her list. Nowhere could she find a convenient, one-stop-shop for her breast cancer needs.

So she started one herself: In Care of You. Five years later, about 5,000 survivors of various types of cancer have turned to her Colorado Springs medical boutique to feel better about themselves in a time of hurt, confusion and fear.

The shop offers products and services that cater to the particulars of cancer treatment, such as swelling from lymphedema, burns from radiation, hair loss from chemotherapy and disfigurement from breast removal or reconstruction.

Need a breast prosthesis, mastectomy bra or swimsuit? The shop has it. How about a synthetic or natural wig, compression garments and pumps or skin-care products to help soothe radiation burns and dryness? You can find those, too. Van Riper even has a makeup specialist on site who does nipple and areola restoration on reconstructed breasts.

Although the shop is geared toward women with cancer, any woman in need of a wig, scarves, hats, bras or permanent eyeliner, eyebrows or lip coloring is welcomed.

Business has been steady enough for the 12-year breast cancer survivor to purchase an office condo. A few weeks ago, she relocated from a rented, hard-to-find office on North Cascade Avenue to a new, airy space in the Pueblo Bank & Trust building at Pikes Peak and Wahsatch avenues.

But Van Riper's business extends beyond sales. She tries to provide an oasis not just for the body, but for the mind as well. The boutique stresses confidentiality and a personal touch, complemented by three staff members who befriend customers, listen to their stories of courage and pain, and freely distribute hugs.

They also know what they're doing -- all are certified stocking, mastectomy-prosthetics and bra fitters.

"Everyone here understands and cares. That's what I wanted -- to make a difference in people's lives," Van Riper said.

The wig that cancer survivor Lori Woshner purchased from Van Riper greatly improved her life.

"The people at In Care of You help you feel as normal as possible, which is very important because it's a long illness," said Woshner, a mother of three. "You're already self-conscious because you've lost your hair. You're going through chemotherapy, so you don't feel so great. I got so many compliments on my new hairstyle -- people thought it was my natural hair."

Nancy Forgy, a 14-year breast cancer survivor, said she'd been looking for the right bra for more than a decade, after a botched reconstructive surgery. In Care of You ended her search and embarrassment.

"Bobbi fitted me for a bra, and I can't tell you how nice it is," Forgy said. "I feel so good."

That's exactly the response Van Riper was hoping for when she decided to take a risk and leave her high-paying job as an IBM sales executive to follow her heart and open the medical boutique in 2003. She marketed the concept to local doctors' offices and hospitals and got involved in health fairs. She became certified and registered as a fitter through an industry board and became qualified to accept health insurance from customers, including Medicare and Tricare.

Word-of-mouth helped the shop blossom, and with more diagnoses of cancer -- one in six Colorado women will fall victim to breast cancer, according to Susan G. Komen for the Cure -- the demand is increasing for the shop's products and services.

"We now see more mastectomy patients in a day than we used to see in a week," said Van Riper, who also chairs the Colorado Springs Race for the Cure, a fundraiser for breast cancer research, treatment and prevention. "If you can walk out of here and look good, you'll feel good. There is life after breast cancer. People come in here and realize that."

CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0235 or [email protected]


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