A North-East lingerie retailer is helping women who have had breast cancer find the perfect bra. Women's Editor Christen Pears reports on a special service.

WHEN Valerie Anderson had a mastectomy two years ago, she thought she was restricted to wearing big, old-fashioned bras for the rest of her life. The ones she ordered from mail order companies were specially designed for women with mastectomies and had pockets sewn into the front to hold her prosthesis.

"I was just resigned to the fact that was the type of bra I had to wear," she says. "They were OK but I'm not exactly a small lady. When I leaned forward, the prosthesis used to come forward as well. I had to wear clothes right up to the neck."

But then she discovered Sadie the Bra Lady. In the late 70s, owner Sadie Ayton discovered traditional bra sizes were inaccurate and developed her own fitting method. Currently, around 80 per cent of women wear the wrong size bra but staff in Sadie's shops in Consett, Sunderland, Darlington and Ashington fit the bra to the body.

Valerie, who lives in Birtley, now wears ordinary bras and has also been fitted for a bikini.

She says: "They can just look at you and know the size and they're very discreet. They would never let you buy anything that isn't suitable. I came away with lots of confidence and now I forget that I'm wearing a prosthesis. I bend forward and nothing moves. It's brilliant."

Sadie and her team have fitted mastectomy patients for more than 20 years and their expertise, combined with the huge range of bras in stock, means everyone can find something suitable. They also fit women who have had reconstructions, lumpectomies and breast reductions.

"A lot of people have a bra with a prosthesis inside a pocket. We pop the prosthesis inside the cup so it sits against the skin. It makes people feel different but we just treat them as normal.

"They're treated as an individual. Everyone has different needs depending on the surgery they've had. A smaller prosthesis can be fitted into a smaller cup. As long as the scar is covered, it doesn't matter."

Most doctors recommend choosing a bra without a wire but Sadie disagrees.

"It's perfectly alright to fit a bra with a wire as long as it's fitted properly and it's comfortable on the scar. All of my suits say dry clean only but I wash them and they're fine. It's just the manufacturers covering themselves and taking extra care in case anything goes wrong. It's the same with wires. The wire fits snugly round the breast and gives a good, firm foundation and uplift."

Breast Cancer Care recommends that women who have had mastectomies visit a bra fitter and some shops and department stores even have specialists who have been trained to help women who have had surgery.

The charity's website says the best fit is usually obtained with a normal, well-fitting bra, although some women may feel more comfortable with pockets. You can adapt ordinary bras by sewing pockets into them.

Sadie says: "It must be terrible having a breast removed in the first place. Then for it not to feel like part of your bodywhen you have a prosthesis must be devastating, but I'm an optimist.

"I had a lady who phoned me to say she'd had a double mastectomy. I said to her: 'Aren't you lucky? You can choose your cup size.' I even have one customer who has a small cup size during the day so it's easier to carry round and a bigger one for the evening. I think you always have to look at the positive and I feel there are a lot of women out there I can help."

*l For more information, visit www.sadiethebralady.com or call (01207) 503032.

You can read Breast Cancer Care's advice on choosing a post-mastectomy bra at www.breastcancercare.org.uk