A clothes shop just for cancer patients

SINGAPORE - Glance at Can-Care's premises in Orchard Shopping Centre and you might think they are similar to the various clothes shops lining the main thoroughfare.

Mannequins sport wigs and brightly coloured bandanas and rows of shelves are stacked with what appear to be shoeboxes.

But Can-Care is no ordinary clothes shop.

Inside the boxes are silicone prosthetic breast forms, used by women who have had mastectomies for breast cancer.

These forms usually last two to three years and cannot be worn with regular bras, so the shop also sells special mastectomy bras, said Can-Care director Serena Wee.

The other items on sale, such as medical-grade wigs, are also for female cancer patients.

Most customers are Singapore-based women referred to the shop by doctors, support groups and other channels.

But as many as about one-third of its clientele fly in from as far away as Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar for consultations and its products, Ms Wee said.

For the most recent financial year to June, Can-Care notched up a turnover of $1.3 million and profit of about $250,000. It has six employees.

Ms Wee told The Straits Times that she started Can-Care in 1997 for "fairly personal" reasons.

Ms Wee, who worked in the health-care industry prior to joining Can-Care, said: "You always assume, being in health care, that you always know what's available and that you're on top of things.

"But when a very close aunt of mine had breast cancer (in 1995), we realised that we were not able to get things for her that we needed. We looked at the continuum of care in cancer care for ladies with cancer and identified that there (was) a gap."

There was a lack of personalised service and suitable accessories for these women, she said.

To fill that gap, Can-Care initially began distributing an Irish company's products within Asia.

"But we had a very bad setback working with the Irish company. We started off in quite a few markets in Asia for them - Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore.

"But somewhere down the road in 2005, they decided they would just take everything back, and appointed themselves here and took over all our distributors," she said.

Ms Wee and her co-founders then had to rebuild the business from scratch in 2006.

Can-Care has now moved into making its own label of silicone prosthetic breast forms. It also acts as a representative in Asia for a United States-based prosthetic breast form maker, American Breast Care.

To build awareness, Can-Care runs a free programme, Look Good Feel Better, with several hospitals here.

It teaches women cosmetic techniques to manage hair loss and other physical changes wrought by cancer treatment.

But Ms Wee noted that Can-Care needs to expand beyond Singapore. While it now has at least a 50 per cent market share, she said volumes would still be fairly limited even if it had 80 per cent of the market.

In 2010, it set up its first overseas office, Can-Care Health Systems, in Kuala Lumpur which boosted revenue by 80 per cent.

Its Malaysia office contributes around 35 per cent of revenue to the group.

Ms Wee said Can-Care also intends to branch out into India and Vietnam next year, and anticipates year-on-year revenue growth of 15 per cent to 20 per cent in 2013.

But to do this, the company needs to find suitable partners and hire more staff, she added.

"It's not so simple to find a partner anywhere in the world who has the same sort of philosophy and business ideas.

"You can't go into this business for the sake of making money. You have to want to work with cancer patients, cancer survivors and their families," she said.


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