Jo-Ann Harris wins internship to design bras for breast cancer patients

The Barbados-born international student won a competition sponsored by Ryerson University, St. Mike’s Hospital

Jo-Ann Harris

For Jennifer Schultz, dealing with breast cancer didn’t stop when she got off the operating table. She relives the pain every time she puts on a bra that doesn’t fit properly or realizes she can’t afford the ones that can.

“It’s unaffordable, it’s unattainable, and in my mind, it’s insult to injury,” Schultz said in an interview.

“I want to feel like I did prior to my mastectomy as much as possible.”

About one in eight women in this country will develop breast cancer, and one in 34 will die from it, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. Many like Schultz live with the aftermath of invasive lumpectomies and mastectomies. That includes the challenge of finding bras that are designed for their prostheses and the evolving needs of post-surgery patients.

To help address this need, St. Michael’s Hospital and Ryerson University’s Healthcare User Experience Lab (HUE) partnered to host a surgical bra design competition for students.

Jo-Ann Harris, 24, was selected over more than a dozen applicants to design the bra. Originally from Barbados, the fourth-year fashion design student at Ryerson, and owner of lingerie and swim wear company JEC Apparel, says she couldn’t be more excited when she got the news.

She gets $10,000 and a one-year internship to develop the product with the hospital’s chief of general surgery Dr. Jory Simpson.

Jennifer Schultz

“I’m extremely optimistic that this will improve the quality of life for our patients in the immediate post-operative period, and maybe beyond,” said Simpson.

As a plus-sized woman, Harris says finding bras was always a challenge, and that was what ultimately led her to pursue bra-making. She says she wants to design a post-surgery bra with healing, comfort, affordability, and women’s different body shapes, in mind.

Harris plans to design a bra specifically for breast cancer patients that features a drainage pouch, prosthesis insertion slot and moisture wicking lining. Her design was chosen by a panel of experts after she interviewed patients and put together a proposal.

Schultz, who has been working with Simpson for years as a breast cancer expert in Unity Health’s Patient as a Teacher program, hopes to provide feedback during the design process.

The director of the HUE lab, Jessica Mudry, helped oversee the competition and select the winning applicant. She says the program shows why students and industry need to collaborate.

“Taking two seemingly disparate ideas — one in medicine and one in creativity and design — is always going to result in something better,” said Mudry.

“There’s a thousand things just in one hospital room alone that we can think about tweaking or redesigning and asking: is this the best there is, and can we do better?”

Meanwhile, Harris says not only will the design process make use of her expertise and skill, it’s also is a way to honour her father, who had colorectal cancer and died in late 2020.

“I think that if he were now, he would be so proud of me and what I’ve done, not just as a fashion designer, but to actually be doing something for people who are suffering.”