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Cherie Mathews  of Heal In Comfort

Cherie Mathews of Heal In Comfort

Disrupting postoperative care for breast cancer patients with compassion and technology

Written by Shelley Seale
Photography by Weston Carls

In 2001, Cherie Mathews was in a fight for her life. She had just undergone a mastectomy to remove her breast cancer tumors and was not only in postoperative pain but was also navigating a world of uncertainty and recovery. There were drain tubes coming out of her body, and she had no idea what she was supposed to do with them or what clothing she could possibly wear.

The nurse advised Mathews to wear one of her husband’s old button-down shirts. “But where do I put the tubes?” Mathews asked. The nurse simply handed her some safety pins.

“That was not impressive,” Mathews recalls. “It was shocking, in fact. If I had a sprained elbow, I would receive a sling without even asking. Yet here I am, dealing with this whole battle, the scary part of cancer — if you’re even going to make it — and I feel even more miserable by not being provided for. The whole thing was awful.”

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Turning Bad Into Good

As demoralizing as the whole experience was, that moment was a catalyst for Mathews.

“I found it incredibly unfair that a sprained elbow would get a sling, so the patient can recover; and here my body had just been butchered and I was handed a pair of safety pins,” Mathews recalls. “In the hospital, when I woke up and was told to wear my husband’s used dress shirt ... it didn’t occur to me how truly atrocious that would be until you look down, and you no longer have your breasts.”

The experience of being wheeled out of the hospital like that, after being handed the medical drains to hold in her hands and given safety pins as a solution, was simply unacceptable to Mathews.

Her mission was to create a standardized, common-for-all clothing solution to cover a patient’s new body and manage the medical drains — and for the patient to look like a person, not a science experiment. Mathews thought there had to be a better option than what she’d been given, but over the next few years, she couldn’t find one. So she set out to create one.

Bootstrapping a Company

Heal in Comfort was born in 2010 as a result of Mathews’ unflagging drive to help other women — and men — battling breast cancer or recovering from surgery. She started with modest means and a simple goal: $1,000 seed money to help 100 patients heal from mastectomies and other invasive surgery, in comfort and with a practical clothing solution.

Mathews admits, however, that she really didn’t know anything about starting a business. She had come from a teaching background and was an engineer at IBM, but being an entrepreneur wasn’t in her wheelhouse. “I didn’t even know what it looked like to start a business,” she says.

One of her early inspirations was hearing the story of TOMS Shoes and its founder, Blake Mycoskie. While traveling in Argentina in 2006, Mycoskie witnessed the hardships faced by children growing up without shoes. His solution to the problem was simple yet revolutionary: to create a for-profit business that was sustainable and not reliant on donations. Mycoskie's vision soon turned into the simple business idea that provided the powerful foundation for TOMS.

“He [Mycoskie] described, for the first time in my life, what bootstrapping a business meant,” Mathews says. “Blake was very, very honest with his description of how he started. That’s how I learned about what bootstrap was.”

Learning Through Failures

As she got started, Mathews capitalized on her experience as a reverse engineer at IBM. Instead of focusing just on motivational stories and podcasts, she spent more time taking a hard look at failure case studies.

“I went the opposite, because that’s who I am; I reverse engineer everything,” Mathews says. “I can probably find a million stories on how great people are and how successful their companies are, but what I wanted to do was find out why businesses fail. What are they doing? What’s common among their failures that I can learn from to help avoid the pitfalls? This excellent information came to me, through other people’s error.”

This approach doesn’t eliminate mistakes, of course. People are always going to make mistakes, Mathews says. But by looking at those that others made, she knew she could at least learn from them to avoid the most common ones. “You don’t have to make needless errors, if you’re wise enough to learn from ‘been there, done that.’ It provides a roadmap in the journey of building a business, to point out the red flags and quicksand — so I would dodge and pivot around those.”

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Solve a Problem or Serve a Need

Mathews also learned a lot from mentor, businesswoman and financial whiz Sharon Lechter. As the co-author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad and the founder/CEO of Pay Your Family First, Lechter advised Mathews that every company needed to do one of two things: either solve a problem or serve a need.

“If you don’t, you may just be wanting something, but the population doesn’t want it,” Mathews explains. With the success of her first 100 Heal in Comfort trial shirts and the positive feedback she was getting from so many grateful cancer patients, she knew that she was really doing both with her postoperative shirts.

“That gave me peace of mind,” Mathews says. “Those were great words as a piece of counsel to start a business.”

Heal in Comfort has now helped more than 21,000 people in their breast cancer and postoperative journeys, with Mathews bootstrapping it the whole way. She never went into debt to launch the company, which she still owns 100 percent of.

New Technology and the Future

Mathews is constantly bringing new innovation to her Heal in Comfort shirts, and she has recently turned her energy toward nanotechnology.

The world’s first Smart Recovery Shirt Powered by ELI Technology is now launching. The technology behind the shirt has been patented and will immediately bring close to a half billion dollars’ worth of information and technology straight to the patient through the Heal in Comfort shirt. The smartwear was developed with the same technology that powers location accuracy for mobile phone calls to 911 and personal assistants for the visually impaired. It acts as a portal, giving the wearer instant access to 10 different software resources, including to one that provides insight into clinical trials, to Belong (the world’s largest community for cancer patients), and to one that provides some escape by enabling the patient to virtually travel somewhere else in the world.

“I am so motivated to get technology to the cancer patients in their most dreary, scared, and frozen part of the journey, after surgery and radiation and such,” Mathews says. “Your brain can’t process thinking about where to find clinical trials; where to connect communities, how to not feel so alone. Now, within two seconds because of this new technology, I am bringing that to the patients.”

This new technology-powered shirt adds a host of new benefits at the same price tag; Mathews is now going to include the technology in the Heal in Comfort standard shirt at no additional cost, as an added value.

With this new evolution of the recover shirt, Mathews is poised to take Heal in Comfort to the next level. “I’m self-sustaining, but I’m looking for the next step in growth.” The shirts have also sold exceptionally well on Amazon, allowing the Heal in Comfort to reach patients around the world.

The Inventor in You

Mathews firmly believes that everyone is an inventor. “Everyone has gone through life thinking, ‘Well this could be done better,’ or, ‘If there was only a solution for this.’ We’re problem solving all day long. There are plenty of people out there who might already be in successful careers, but they’ve always had this really cool idea. Maybe they’ve never talked to anyone about it, or gotten it out of their head and onto paper to do something with it.”

Part of the excitement that Mathews derives from her entrepreneurial journey is in inspiring and empowering other people that they, too, can bring their invention to market and start their own companies. She would like to provide for other people what Mycoskie’s story did for her.

“That’s a big thing for me,” she says. “My experience can help to teach, share and motivate anyone else who might look at me and say, ‘Well, she did that — maybe I can pursue that dream or invention that I have.’ When they listen to a story of someone who did this with a thousand dollars, as a social experiment, they think they can give it a go. If we ignite this, get other people to start thinking of themselves with the mind of an inventor, it can create a ripple effect where people can think that if I can do that, then they can do it too.”

Soul Pay

Soul Pay is a term that Mathews coined to talk about the non-monetary rewards that she believes every entrepreneur needs to have to achieve success, while also feeling fulfilled and on purpose.

“I believe you absolutely must build in a soul pay,” she says. “When the money’s not flowing in, you have to be equally content and happy with your mission; and you’re being blessed on a daily basis because of your ability to give back and help people.”

The way Mathews builds in her soul pay is through partnering with the nonprofit Gifting Care, providing comfort kits to Austin patients. The kits include a Heal in Comfort shirt, a soft headband, custom bandana, and lip balm.

“I take care of my own tribe in Austin,” Mathews says. “I still make time every single day to help cancer patients. For anybody thinking about a business who’s only motivated by money, you might have a very disappointing end. There were times when nothing was coming in and everything was going out, but I was still happy and content and peaceful about my vision. Are you proud of who you are at the end of the day? The human spirit craves soul pay.”

Listen to the View From Venus podcast with Cherie Mathews at foundingaustin.com/podcasts

Louis Black, co-founder of The Austin Chronicle and SXSW

Louis Black, co-founder of The Austin Chronicle and SXSW

Alejandro Ruelas and Manny Flores of LatinWorks

Alejandro Ruelas and Manny Flores of LatinWorks