GILLIAN Horton has been to Fiji twice, but neither trip was for holidaying.
Instead, the Garran lingerie shop owner was there to fit women with donated breast forms and post-mastectomy bras.
There’s a big need, according to Gillian, who says Fijian women don’t have access to pocketed bras or breast forms after cancer surgery.
She says the need is even bigger because in Fiji women are more likely to undergo mastectomy because breast-conserving surgery isn’t usually an option.
Gillian, who’s had a mastectomy herself, didn’t start the service but was inspired to get involved after hearing a woman named Heather Tait, from Bowral, talk about it on the radio about five years ago.
“She was asking for donations and I had just taken over Colleen’s Lingerie and Swimwear in 2014,” Gillian says.
“I thought what a great way to support the women in Fiji so I started collecting second-hand bras, in particular mastectomy bras, but we also collect any bras to give to the women there.”
Since then Gillian’s been gathering bras and giving them to Heather who then takes the donations to Fiji twice a year. Last year Gillian decided to join Heather in Fiji to see where the bras go.
Gillian and Heather worked with the Fiji Cancer Society, which organises for recipients to be fitted in three locations: Suva, Lautoka and Labasa.
There were lots of tears and hugs on the trip, but what really left Gillian speechless was hearing about women leaving hospital after surgery without a proper mastectomy bra.
“We’d like to make sure every woman in Fiji leaves hospital with a post-surgical bra and what we call a ‘fluffy’, which is a light-weight breast form,” she says.
“There’s also a lot of cultural shame surrounding the women post surgery.
“After giving these women bras and breast forms, to see their faces and physical appearance, it’s incredible.
“Through my own personal experience I know the difference it can bring to your own wellbeing and your sense of worth and normality.”
When Gillian first got a breast form, she says it made her feel like her old self.
“Even my husband noticed something had changed, not just with my physical appearance but with my own demeanour,” she says.
That’s why Gillian is so passionate about the service and has been to Fiji last year and this year to help out.
She says the service changes lives, one at a time, and she’s planning to do more training with the women in Fiji to make the program more sustainable.
“We’re training local women so they’ll be able to fit women after surgery,” she says.
While they were in Fiji, Gillian says they were also fitting women from the ages of 12 to 90 who haven’t had breast cancer.
“[For these women] even getting normal bras is either really expensive or not available,” she says.
“A bra can give someone comfort, it can also give them a lot of self esteem.
“Many women do physical work as well, so not having a bra would be uncomfortable.”
This was the case with a young woman Gillian fitted this year. She had been struggling with chest and back pain.
“She was having all these issues just because she needed to be wearing a bra,” Gillian says.
It was incredible to see the look of sheer relief in her face after she was fitted with a proper bra, Gillian says.
Anyone looking to donate can drop off a bra, breast form, turban or wig at her Garran shop. Or they can purchase a bra and donate it.
She’s also accepting donations of soft fill, which is used in the light-weight breast forms.
“It’s these simple things that just make such a huge difference,” she says.