Transforming Breast Cancer Recovery: Dr. Elizabeth Chabner Thompson
Breast cancer has always been a part of Elizabeth Chabner Thompson’s life.
With a family history of the disease, she watched her great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother be diagnosed and undergo treatment. She endured years of breast surveillance, biopsies, and endless consultations with genetic counselors because of her own high risk. And then there was her career. As a radiation oncologist, it was her job to treat other women with breast cancer.
So, when she underwent prophylactic double mastectomy surgery (a procedure that drastically reduces a woman’s risk of breast cancer) in 2006, she told herself, “OK, this will be the end of my overwhelming concern with breast cancer on a personal level.”
Turns out, she was in for just the opposite.
Through her experience, and through helping other women who had gone through similar procedures, Chabner Thompson realized that most women don’t have the tools and resources they need for a successful recovery—and that as both a doctor and a patient, she was in a unique position to change that.
Cut to today, and Chabner Thompson is the founder of BFFL Co. (“Best Friends for Life”), a company dedicated to the development and marketing of modern recovery products and services, including a line of surgical and recovery bras and the company’s signature product, the BFFLBag . The bright, cheerful bags contain everything women need for surgical recovery, from a specially designed comfort pillow to wound and drain care supplies and instructions a box of tasty, healthy KIND bar snacks . The company is for-profit but donates 15% of proceeds to charity and has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding in 2011.
We sat down with Chabner Thompson to learn more about her career path, the decisions that led her to today, and her quickly growing company.
You come from a family with four generations of breast cancer. Is that what spurred your interest in medicine?
Actually, no. My father, who is a medical oncologist, encouraged me from a very early age to come with him to the hospital. I was fascinated by what was going on in the hospital and with his patients—so for me, it was a natural career choice .
What I didn’t know what was going to happen was that my mother would develop breast cancer in my fourth year of medical school. At that point, I realized that I wanted to help solve this problem for not only for my mother, but for other women.
That made me take a turn in my training path. I was going to be a gynecological oncologist—the type of surgeon who treats women with ovarian or cervical cancer—but in my first year of training, the year my mom was going through treatment, I realized that I didn’t know if I could make it through eight years of surgical training. So, I weighed my options and I was able to get a spot as a radiation oncology resident in Boston, which is closer to my parents. And I guess you could call it a failure, but it was wonderful for me—a gift in disguise.
After that, the research that I did as a resident and the evolution of what I did professionally was just always focused on breast cancer.
When did you make the decision to have a mastectomy?
I had four kids in rapid succession, and I continued my career as a doctor. As things moved along, I had multiple biopsies and mammograms and MRIs—the doctors were screening me very closely because they were concerned about my risk for breast cancer. It was around the time that the BRCA gene [a gene linked to breast cancer susceptibility] had just been identified, and they tested our family, and we were negative. A lot of people said, “Oh, great, you don’t have it, you have nothing to worry about,” but it wasn’t great—it just meant there was something else that was conferring risk to our family.
And so I just made a decision that I was going to go have a surgery that was really unheard of at the time: Two surgeons in New York had mastered a procedure whereby you go in and you have your mastectomy and your reconstruction all at once—there’s no going home and then needing to return for a second operation.
I had the surgery, and almost immediately, I was back visiting other people and trying to help other women who were having the same surgery. We would talk on the phone or on email, or I would visit them in the hospital and bring them the things that they needed. So, that surgical practice asked me if I’d be willing to work for them on a part-time basis—basically be a navigator, a liaison between the patients and the surgeons.
I created a tip sheet for these women post-surgery, and my tip sheet became this little kit of supplies, and this little kit became an overwhelming burden in my basement. And my husband told me, "You’ve got to get this out of here." So that’s how I got the idea to start the company.
How has the company evolved since then?
That original kit became the BFFLBag, but I also had ideas about a better surgical bra and about garments for patients undergoing radiation. So, I just decided to go for all of it! I didn’t anticipate that everything would sort of take legs, but they all did. We’ve also created bags for patients undergoing surgery for prostate cancer, traumatic brain injury, and other conditions, and bags for new moms.
Right now, we are working really hard on our radiation garments. We have a patent that’s almost cleared by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and we have 510(k) clearance from the FDA, and as soon as we can get 100 patients treated in the garments, hopefully it will become the next big thing for people being treated. There’s really good things on the horizon and the potential for these products to really make a difference in people’s lives.
Are you still practicing medicine?
I am. I hold onto that tenaciously because I’ve always appreciated the flexibility of my radiation practice. Plus, I think it helps with what I’m doing—it helps to have that constant patient contact. I just love when I can sit there and talk to people and talk them through a treatment that they’re scared or unsure about and help them. A lot of it is hopeful: People come in with a really big problem and leave cured, and that’s sort of what medicine is about.
How has the reaction to the BFFLBag been among the medical community?
There are a lot of doctors who say, “This is great, thank God we have this bag—I hate sending people home by grabbing a few things from our closet and shoving it into a dirty laundry bag.” It takes a lot of stress off the physician, too, in terms of follow-up phone calls and compliance. Having everything women need post-surgery in one place and bundled up helps them understand what they need to do, so it helps physicians tremendously.
But getting buy-in is also one of the biggest challenges for me. Physicians are busy, and they can’t really see what happens when the patient goes home—they’re assuming that the patient is fine. Meanwhile, many patients aren’t fine, and they’re struggling. I think that we as physicians need to open our eyes and understand that a very big component of our healthcare costs right now is patients who return after surgery to the emergency room with cellulitis or a hematoma because they didn’t know how to take care of their wounds. That’s expensive and hard for everyone involved, and that’s not good.
Eventually, they’re not going to be able to see me as “some nice woman who thinks that everyone should have this little bag”—they’ll take it seriously. This little bag may make the difference between an ER visit and smooth sailing.
Your company, your work, and your story are incredibly inspiring. What’s the most rewarding part of what you do?
When I hear patients say, “This is amazing, and my [surgical] drains didn’t hurt when I wore your bra,” and that we’re solving other little things that can really make recovery a bitch—that just makes my day, that’s it. Women leave the hospital after surgery in such pain and with their dignity stripped—and my biggest wish is to help these women recover and feel good about themselves.
Adrian Granzella Larssen is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Muse, the award-winning daily career advice publication that's helped millions of people find and succeed at their dream jobs. A nationally recognized career expert, she speaks regularly to corporations and women's groups and has been featured in Forbes, Mashable, Business Insider, Fusion TV, and Real Simple. She has 10+ years experience in strategic communications and publications, most recently serving as head of online communications for the George Washington University Medical Center. Say hi on Twitter and Instagram.More from this Author