Illness Changes Everything

Phylise Sands hadn’t held a paying job in 20 years. But witnessing her sister’s battle with cancer inspired her to start her own activewear company

by Amanda Robb
phylise sands image
“When everything in your life is fine, it is pretty easy to be a good person,” says Sands, shown here at The Lara Touch exercise studio. “It’s when things are bad that it’s hard.”
Photograph: Adam Golfer

It’s 10:30 on a fall morning at the Exhale Mind Body Spa on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Glistening women exit a core-fusion class and wander into the white tea–scented reception area, where a lingerie and activewear pop-up sale is under way. Most of the vendors step forward to meet their potential customers. But Phylise Sands, 49, owner of Red Daisy, hovers behind her luxury bras, tanks and tights. Tiny, with the lithe muscles of a distance runner, Sands could be mistaken for a spa customer. She watches as several women admire Red Daisy’s corset- and girdle-inspired designs and others ooh and ahh over the supersmooth compression fabric. But Sands approaches only one woman—the one who looks upset. “Can I help you with something?” Sands asks.

Within minutes, Sands is in a dressing room with the voluptuous brunette as she tries on bras and pours out her heart. Her boyfriend says she has to lose weight to be successful at work. She has an appointment for liposuction. Sands gently suggests that surgery might be extreme: Lovers are supposed to be supportive, all changes are stressful, and she looks gorgeous in the Jaclyn bra. “Life is challenging you in ways you didn’t expect,” Sands says. “Maybe challenge it back.”

What inspired Sands to start her own business was a bitterly unexpected event. Eight years ago, Sands led a comfortable life as a busy stay-at-home mom with three children and an investment-banker husband. There were squash and lacrosse practices to ferry the kids to. There was volunteer work at school and at her synagogue. When she got an hour or two for herself, Sands went on long runs in Central Park. Even when she was diagnosed with melanoma and her mother with breast cancer, Sands still considered herself extraordinarily blessed. “Both our cancers were caught so early!” she says. But while Sands was in the waiting room during her mom’s lumpectomy, her younger sister, Jackie Devitt, arrived in tears.

“Jackie, you’re overreacting,” Sands said. “Mom is going to be fine.”

“It’s not Mom,” Devitt said. “It’s me.”

Devitt, then 38 and two years shy of the National Cancer Institute’s recommended age for mammogram screening, had never gone with her mother and sister for their annual “mammo date”—a mother-daughter trip to the radiologist, then lunch. But since they were all well aware that the disease can run in families, Sands’s mother scheduled a screening for Devitt during her own surgery. Devitt’s mammogram revealed a mass in her right breast. It was cancer, and it had spread to 14 of her lymph nodes.

“I was devastated,” Sands says. “Jackie is my baby sister. I often took care of her after our parents divorced [Sands was 13, Devitt nine], so I guess I’ve always felt like she was my first baby.” As Devitt underwent a double mastectomy, radiation, chemotherapy, breast reconstruction, a hospital-borne infection, a redo of the breast reconstruction, a hysterectomy, more radiation and more chemotherapy, Sands stepped back into her maternal role. She took her sister to doctor appointments, oversaw holidays, paid Devitt’s bills when necessary and found the best wig maker.

Yet even as she was helping, Sands felt wretched. “It’s a cliché to say you feel guilty because everything is OK in your life, but I did feel really guilty,” she says. “Because the truth is, when everything in your life is fine, it is pretty easy to be a good person. It’s when things are bad that it’s hard. And there was my sister, Jackie, being told she was dying when she had very young children. Her marriage became very stressed [the couple divorced three years ago]. She is often in pain. But still, every single day she chooses to fight to live. Watching my sister changed the way I look at my life. I wanted to emulate her strength by finding a challenge of my own to take on with full force.”

First published in the April 2013 issue

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