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Pleasant Ridge — After beating breast cancer, Susan Thomas realized that as an oncology nurse and a patient, she was in a unique position to help others.

So she worked with her husband to make survivors' lives easier by offering products with a personal touch as they dealt with their disease. After almost two decades, she's decided to close up shop for retirement, and because of changing shopping habits and improved methods for treating breast cancer.

"Our culture is changing," said Thomas, 68. "Online shopping has taken over, and research is indicating women with early-age breast disease aren't receiving as much chemotherapy and are not losing as much hair. And that's wonderful news."

Thomas said she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, during which time she had a mastectomy and underwent chemotherapy.  She quickly discovered how few products were available for women going through cancer treatment.

"My experience was awful looking for products with my upcoming needs and need for guidance," said Thomas.

She and her husband, David, opened up a wholesale business selling wigs. In 2000, they launched Susan's Special Needs in Pleasant Ridge to offer products to women undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, menopause (a side effect of treatment) and hair loss. 

Her website features the phrase: "A survivor's passion to help."

"When people come into my store, they’re frightened, they're scared. But because I’ve lived it, they meet me and they relax," said Thomas. "That's what made this all special. We offered private consultation rooms and educated the clients on a wide range of products."

Laura Zubeck, director of patient and community education at Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, said she sends many patients to Susan's Special Needs because there are not a lot of specialty shops around.

"Susan and her staff have provided a unique service to so many women with garments and wigs for many years," Zubeck said. "A cancer diagnosis changes a woman’s normal, how you look, how you feel and Susan gave a little of that back to them. The care they provided was done with dignity and kindness supporting each woman individually with her needs. Unfortunately, insurance doesn’t always cover the cost of the specialty items."

Almost 20 years and 11,500 customers later, the Thomases will close the shop Feb. 28. Merchandise including hats; human hair and synthetic wigs; turbans; mastectomy bras and  accessories are offered for sale at up to 80 percent off, Thomas said.

Two years after she was diagnosed, Thomas said she lost her oldest daughter suddenly at the age of 12, but working kept her focused on her patients and helped her through her grief. 

"I've learned (that) as much as I help people, people help me," she said. 

That why it's such a "bittersweet moment" to retire, Thomas said. She plans to continue some of her work of the past two decades by offering private hair and wig consultations at Antonino Salon and Spa in Birmingham. (To schedule a consultation, call (248) 544-4287.

"It’s a very sad time and happy time," she said. "New opportunity, new adventures ahead."

srahal@detroitnews.
Twitter: @SarahRahal_

 

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