The NTU alum and cancer survivor who is using her own experiences to create self-esteem boosting fashion for women
Back in 2019, the future couldn’t have looked brighter for Alex Perry. As a mature student, she’d finished her first year of a fashion management degree at NTU and had ambitious plans.
Then came two major setbacks. The first – something we can all relate to – COVID and a national lockdown. The second, and way more personal – the shock of a receiving second breast cancer diagnosis.
Thankfully today, Alex is feeling stronger and more confident than ever, but it’s a part of her life she’ll never forget.
“I’d been really looking forward to finally going to university as a mature student and thought this is going to be great!” Alex says.
“I’d only been at university for one year, and then lockdown happened. So I spent the rest of the course studying from home, which was a bit different. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it – but as a mature student, I remembered feeling ridiculously old! I’d look round and think, I’m on a course with a group of people who are the same age as my stepdaughter and it’s going to be awkward.”
Thankfully for Alex, she didn’t find it awkward. In fact, quite the opposite.
“If a mature student asked me today whether they should consider going to university, I’d say yes – just do it. From my experience, everyone was so accommodating – especially the staff. As a single parent, I remember getting so much help from NTU’s student support team and they went above and beyond to make me feel welcome.”
As a single parent, I remember getting so much help from NTU’s student support team and they went above and beyond to make me feel welcome
Before deciding to apply for a place at NTU, Alex felt she was at a bit of a life and career crossroads.
“This was my one shot at applying for a place at university and doing something I really wanted but hadn’t had the chance to do when I was younger. But with all the support on offer, it made sense,” she says.
I was interested in a variety of courses at first, but because I had a background of working in fashion design and development for several companies – one being Nottingham’s Paul Smith – the BA in Fashion Management felt like the right fit.”
Given Alex already had 20 years of experience working in the industry, instead of doing a work placement year, one of the lecturers on her course suggested contacting NTU’s Enterprise hub.
“I’d always been interested in running my own business and my original idea was to produce sportswear. So I decided I’d take a year out and with the support of the hub, put my business plan together,” she says.
I’d always been interested in running my own business and my original idea was to produce sportswear. So I decided I’d take a year out and with the support of the hub, put my business plan together
Then came the news. Alex had been diagnosed with breast cancer a few years earlier. Sadly, it had returned.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer – again – in July 2020,” Alex says.
“And with all the treatments that might involve, I just thought, I don’t really want to be focusing on this business plan right now. I was getting so much support at NTU and was enjoying studying, so my plans changed again.”
It’s a mark of Alex’s tenacity that despite lockdown, a potentially life-changing cancer diagnosis, and a rigorous programme of medical treatments, she successfully completed her course.
“Ironically, COVID made things easier for me,” Alex says. “Because we were having blended learning at that time [part at home, part on campus] I could log in from home after one of my radiotherapy treatments and catch up with all the things I’d missed – sometimes at two or three o’clock in the morning if I wanted.”
Originally considering a business plan to design and develop sportswear, Alex’s experiences inspired a change of focus.
“My dissertation was a deep study of the post-surgery bra market because it’s something that was personal to me. It felt like a tide was pushing me in that direction,” she says.
Being told I had breast cancer wasn’t great, but after everything I’ve been through, and with exciting plans on the horizon, I knew I’d get through it all
Alex’s subsequent business plan won a competition from NTU Enterprise and also Nottingham University’s Ingenuity Programme.
“I feel really lucky and blessed,” she says. “I’m very good at procrastinating but NTU has helped me say ‘yes you can!’. It’s also got me recognition from some very credible places.”
The £2,000 prize from NTU Enterprise is being put to good use developing prototype garments for Alex’s new business venture – H.E.R Bodywear. The mission is to create a range of lingerie for women who might have lost some of their self-confidence following breast cancer surgery.
It’s hard not to feel inspired by Alex’s story. So what comes next?
“Making my business a success, definitely,” she says.
“As a [cancer] survivor, it’s never completely out of your mind. Any little lump, or pain, and immediately you’re saying to yourself – I need to get this checked out. It’s gone for now and I’ve had additional treatments to reduce the risk of it coming back. I sometimes look back over the past few years and think I’ve been dealt a really rubbish hand of cards. But these things are all character-building and make you ready and prepared for whatever else life might throw at you.
“One of the biggest challenges in my life has been going back to university as a single parent and a mature student. Being told I had breast cancer wasn’t great, but after everything I’ve been through and with exciting plans on the horizon, I knew I’d get through it all.”