Fight Like a Girl

Cherie Mathews brings comfort and innovation to the breast cancer fight.

By Mary Anne Connolly

Cherie Mathews is a rockstar. Her signature red lipstick; her spiky, cropped, jet-black hair; her motorcycle-chic rhinestone accessories and boots; her Harley—she looks a bit like the potential offspring of Joan Jett and Billy Idol. Unsurprisingly, she has met both icons via her love of rock ‘n’ roll and has pictures to prove it. The Burlington, Ontario, Canada native became a U.S. citizen at the age of 15, lived in 26 places and was fiercely independent. A natural inventor with a penchant for helping others, she was the offspring of a mother who attended the first Woodstock and believed in the power of the people, and a dad who disassembled the gift of his daughter’s first car in the driveway in order to teach her how things work. (Her challenge was to put the car back together before she could drive it.)

Mathews, a former IBM genius problem solver, also spent 14 years as a physical-education teacher in order to spend time with her children, Ashley and Adam, now grown and independent at 23 and 19, respectively. She was one of the pioneers of one of the most successful after-school sports programs: The First Tee National School Program, which teaches nine core values and nine healthy habits via golf and a variety of other sports. Mathews trains groups of teachers who then implement the programs in their schools. The programs have reached more than 2.8 million students in five years. As the first person to test pilot the program, she is currently one of three national trainers in the U.S. The former long-distance runner, avid golfer and wife of a three-time Ironman athlete also finds time to ride his-and-hers Harleys through vacation spots like Jackson Hole, WY, and Mexico. However, this nominee of the Fearless Women Entrepreneur Network wasn’t always so bold. When Mathews first moved to Austin, she knew no one.

Austin Woman magazine was my very first friend when I moved to Austin,” she shares. She even chose her doctors based on what ran in the magazine. “And the person I reached out to was featured in the magazine–Mary Ann Heller–an amazing soul and breast-cancer survivor who graciously responded. I told her about my idea for healincomfort and she said, ‘Follow your dreams.’”

Cherie Mathews is the CEO and founder of healincomfort and was Austin Woman’s 2010 Small Business Grant Award winner at the magazine’s eighth-anniversary event last October, just two short years after establishing healincomfort. The healincomfort core product, the healincomfort shirt, is a post-operative solution to the frustrating and inadequate equipment Mathews was given as a double-mastectomy patient almost 10 years ago.

“As they were wheeling me down the hall after reprimanding me for bringing in a man’s hoodie to wear home, I had a vision of creating a postoperative garment,” Mathews says. “Before I hit the car, I had it designed in my head.” Mathews continues: “A lot of women are told to bring in a men’s dress shirt and they pin the drains to it. That is the same as telling a man who has lost his man parts to cancer to go home in his wife’s skirt. It’s morally, physically and spiritually wrong. .. It's like coming home from the hospital with a broken arm and they give you a shoestring. It’s not right. It needs to change.”

Quite unlike a men’s dress shirt, the healincomfort shirt is made of butter-soft, moisture-wicking material with Velcro fasteners and special pockets for the drains that accompany the post-op experience. As Mathews says, it’s “a hug when a real hug will hurt” and every movement is painful. Mathews is one of the strongest voices for breast-cancer awareness and has participated in and sponsored countless events like the Stiletto Stampede, her Be Brave and Fight Like a Girl parties and her Support Crew Rides. But Mathews spent a long time in silence.

“The first time I said verbally, out loud, that I had a double mastectomy was on Fox News just a year and a half ago,” she reveals. “I went 10 years without identifying with breast cancer. I’ve been a leader all my life and I didn’t identify with the broken, victim thing. … I never ran in a race and couldn’t deal with pink bows and balloons, but then I had a God moment. I had a dream of a hand handing me a book of paper, which was basically my life–a ‘life card’–and mine was empty. Even though I had helped a lot of people and had a lot of accomplishments, mine was empty. It wasn’t until I completely lay down my pride that I realized I couldn’t help one single soul in protective mode. So, I pretty much had to put pride aside.”

Mathews brings a kick-ass attitude to the entire breast-cancer awareness movement via her viral social-media marketing and ubiquitous presence. As she puts it, “I bring a rock ‘n’ roll edge to breastcancer awareness–vengeance with swords and motorcyles!”

So how did she feel when she won her Austin Woman award? “Instant rock-star status,” she says. “How many people on planet earth are ever going to have 500 businesswomen stand on their feet and applaud their idea? I commanded myself on stage to be present even though my brain was overwhelmed with the graciousness of people getting it. It was almost like a wind of knowledge came over me, like God moved the spirits of the women to applaud the rights of women to heal in comfort and dignity. It energized me in a bucket list, oncein-a-lifetime experience sort of way. Plus, it was a great platform on which to be heard and later, an attention-getter.”

Mathews has great advice for bootstrapped entrepreneurs in a down economy: “Don’t let money be the obstacle to fulfilling your passion dream or desire. I literally built my business with $1,000. Mom-and-pops are the backbone of our entrepreneurial system, and we need to honor the inventor. I want to be a speaker for young people. Money can be a barrier, but so is time, energy and focus.”

Mathews also credits mentors like AW Media Inc. Publisher and Co-founder Melinda Garvey and Jean Carpenter Backus (The Naked Accountant) with her whirlwind success.

“Melinda Garvey has been a real role model to me, with a bootstrap business that has made a real difference,” she says. “I have not run in to a lot of bootstrapped businesses that have been successful. She has been with me eyeball to eyeball and given me counsel. She has been a rock.”

Healincomfort has gifted more than 500 shirts (manufactured in the USA) to breast cancer centers throughout the state of Texas, including Seton Medical Center, St. David’s Medical Center, the Breast Cancer Resource Center, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Texas Oncology and Houston Medical Center. Mathews used her grant money specifically for the lengthy design patent-pending application, which recently got approval. She is now looking for a mass-market manufacturer to help her reach her goal of providing the shirts globally. And the shirt isn’t just helping breastcancer patients. The newly formed is reaching heartsurgery and organ-transplant patients, too. Mathews’ favorite healincomfort story speaks to the powerful emotional connection many women make with the garment.

“I get a call from a daughter, and her 85-year-old mother had a double mastectomy eight months ago,” Mathews says. “Her mother is standing over the dryer, waiting, and the daughter says, ‘Mom, we gotta go! C’mon, Mom. What are you doing?’ She is standing over the dryer like she is waiting for a cake to come out of the oven and says, ‘I’m waiting for my healincomfort shirt.’ And, of course, the daughter responds, ‘Mom, you don’t need that anymore; you’re fine. You can wear regular clothing now!’ But the daughter says, ‘Cherie, I need to order a new one because my mother just pointed and snapped at me, saying, ‘You don’t understand! Healincomfort does!’ So the shirt is now a ‘blanky’ for someone who is 85 with no breasts.”