Breast cancer surgery left one woman craving the pretty lingerie she used to love. There was only one thing for it – make her own, finds Sandra Dick.

In a shop changing room, with the curtains drawn and the harsh impact of her breast cancer reflected in the mirror, it would be Caroline Kennedy Alexander’s search for the simplest of items that would tip her over the edge.

She had lost her sister Rose to breast cancer. Her other sister, Mary, had undergone a double mastectomy after her diagnosis. And Kennedy Alexander, having fought breast cancer twice and seen her body change shape as a result, just wanted to buy a nice bra.

“I cried so many times in changing rooms because I felt like a freak,” she recalls. “The staff in the shops would be sorry, but they didn’t even know how to measure me. It was horrible.

“Every bra seemed to have been made by a medical company. There was no softness or luxury, the bras were old-fashioned with supersize straps. They seemed to start at my neck and go down to my waist. They were huge.”

Functional and dreary, they were in black, white or beige and itchy nylon with none of the cute touches or attention to detail that a lingerie lover like Kennedy Alexander craved.

Usually found shoved in a corner of a shop or delivered wrapped in a plain plastic bag with none of the pretty frills she wanted, the stiff, bulky post-surgery undies seemed to add insult to injury.

But rather than simply accept a life of dreary knickers and miserable bras, the Edinburgh mother of two gathered a group of post-surgery breast cancer women and set about creating her own collection of undies designed to take into account breast cancer patients’ scarring, swelling and support needs but made with soft vintage lace, smooth silk and delicate cotton.

Last month, she went further and launched a crowdfunding push to help grow her post-breast surgery luxury lingerie brand, helped by cancer survivors who, like her, craved a return to attractive undies.

A recent video shoot during which the women danced, hugged and laughed in their LoveRose Lingerie knickers and bras – names after her sister – reduced her to tears again, this time for more positive reasons.

“I put a call out for anyone who wants to be part of the journey to send in a reason why they would like to be a model,” she recalls. “I received so many responses – everyone wanted the same thing, a little boost and to feel good about themselves.

“We made a little film and I cried. They were amazing, and it felt fantastic to be doing this.”

Others who have had their life harshly impacted by a cruel disease might have wanted to move on and forget about it. Instead, Kennedy Alexander says embarking on her lingerie quest has been as much of a support to her own emotional healing as a mission to replenish her underwear drawer.

“It’s my reaction to something that was really quite devastating in my life,” she says. “When I think about what I’m doing, I think about emotional healing.”

Originally from Ireland, Kennedy Alexander studied fashion design and later sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art before working as a designer and gallery owner in the city for more than 20 years. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 at the age of 42, eight years after Rose had lost her life to the disease and her other sister Mary had undergone radical breast removal surgery.

Although mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes means breast cancer can run in some families, there has been no genetic link found in the three sisters’ case.

Kennedy Alexander underwent several operations and radiotherapy, but cancer returned in 2015 leaving no option but to have a double mastectomy with reconstruction.

“I lost my confidence and femininity,” she says. “I always loved lingerie. It didn’t matter what I was wearing on top of it, I loved selecting it – and wearing nice lingerie gave me confidence.

“But I found it impossible to find anything that made me feel okay and remotely like how I used to feel before surgery.”

She worked closely with Maggie’s Centres and Edinburgh Western General Hospital to find out if other women felt the same. Having identified a gap in the market for post-surgery lingerie that was soft, stylish and feminine, she set about creating a range made from 100% recycled lace, silk and Tencel jersey, fully biodegradable, breathable and with antibacterial qualities.

“Cancer affected every part of my life,” she adds. “But once I came through it, I felt embarrassed to talk about my feelings and how I felt about my body. I felt it was a bit vain of me to talk about such things when you are well.

“But that’s when you have to work on the emotional part. The scars have healed but other parts are raw.

“You feel better, you go to yoga, the gym. You should also be able to put on underwear that makes you feel like you are back in control and makes you feel good – that’s what this is about.”

Her lingerie collection, which will also help support two cancer charities, has important features such as hidden support to remove the need for damaging underwires and pocketed bras for women who wear prostheses.

Unlike one particularly brutal bra which was so rigid it stood up by itself on her dressing table, she uses butter-soft fabrics and seams specially designed to avoid irritation.

Maggie’s Edinburgh cancer support specialist Ali Clarke said: “Body image and confidence are incredibly important issues for people living with cancer, as we hear in our centre every day where we help men and women work through issues such as self-esteem and body confidence.

“Treatment can have a huge impact on a person’s body and their sense of self and then being limited by what you can wear can add to those already raw emotions.

“Caroline knows what it feels like as a woman to not have a choice after treatment and knows what a difference having lovely, feminine underwear can make to a woman’s self-esteem.

“Her story is inspirational.”