Sue Callison credits her sister with saving her life.
"I remember thinking that she probably had breast cancer at my age because when she was diagnosed, she was so far advanced," says Callison, recalling the test she took when she was 37 years old.
She and her sister, who passed away, were both carriers of the BRCA II gene mutation, which increases a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. When the disease was also detected in her nodes, she decided on an aggressive approach: a double mastectomy, a hysterectomy and a node dissection, which left her with a side-effect called lymphedema, a condition that has profoundly affected this West Hartford mother.
"That was the first time that I cried," says Callison, who was lifting boxes at a tag sale when she noticed her arm was significantly swollen. "It just filled right up without me even knowing, within a couple of hours."
Lymphedema, an accumulation of fluid, is often experienced by cancer patients when surgery "interferes" with their lymphatic channels. After the stress of breast cancer, Callison was devastated to be dealing with a chronic, often lifelong condition. She was prescribed a tight medical sleeve to help control the swelling, which Callison says actually made her feel worse.
"I had a 2-year-old. I couldn't pick him up anymore because it was uncomfortable and painful," she says. So she scoured stores and the Internet for a better option, stumbling on an Italian company called Solidea, manufacturer of a new concept in compression garments made from a soft, wave-like fabric with a design for a sleeve that runs the entire length of the arm to the shoulder.
"At first, I was just thrilled for myself, but then I started to think, 'What about everyone else who is dealing with this'?"
Callison went from customer to CEO of LSC Distribution when she became the sole importer of Solidea products into the United States. She started the business in her basement and now stocks hundreds of these garments at her warehouse on Arbor Street in Hartford. This former interior designer has travelled to conferences, introducing the sleeve to patients and doctors, and feels gratified by her work:
"It gives me tingles to my toes, basically, to know that I'm helping other people improve their quality of life."
Dr. Philip Allmendinger, a retired vascular surgeon who now consults with Callison, agrees: "You have to treat this because the swelling can make the limb useless."
Now cancer-free, Callison is raising her 6-year-old son, Cole, and her sister's 15-year-old daughter, Sayaka. An extremely difficult time actually changed her personal mission: "I believe in my heart that if you leave yourself open and you follow whatever path presents to you and you stick to it, amazing things can happen."