Almost 14 years ago, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. After a radical mastectomy with lymph node removal on the right side of my body, I knew that my relationship with clothing would forever change.
I was forced to rethink my approach to how I dress. But the biggest challenge was not having the resources or information to help me navigate this new experience after my surgery.
For many mastectomy patient, such as myself, dressing up to go out in public can stir up feelings of self-consciousness at first. People who have had both breasts removed often wonder if they should go flat-chested or get prostheses. Others, like myself, who have had one breast removed, wonder if getting a prosthesis for the surgical side will make us look as we did before surgery—or whether it will make us look unbalanced.
Once you realize that you are losing one or both breasts, some—like me—may assume you can’t wear specific clothing like halter tops, spaghetti-strapped dresses, or off-the-shoulder tops because your bra will show you need one to support your prosthetics.
Over time, I learned a lot of things when it came to getting dressed after having a mastectomy. I have some tips to help others in the same predicament. The most important lesson: you shouldn’t limit what you can or can’t wear after surgery.
Get fitted for a bra by an experienced specialist
Before you can even think about clothing, you need to figure out bras. Going to an experienced bra fitter at a specialty shop or a drug store with home health care that offers bra and prosthesis fittings is critical. They will have the experience and background to help women determine their needs. After my surgery, I went to a chain lingerie store to find a bra. A sales associate gave me a larger-sized cupped bra and said I could put my prostheses in the cup to hold it. That was not the right solution—the prosthesis was visible and could fall out. Also, the bra did not have any support.
Carol-Lynn Lucas of JUST CALL US – Health Solutions Inc., a bra and prosthesis fitting specialty store in Halifax, says that women should think about what they do in their everyday life—that will help determine what bras will work for them. (That is, if you need a bra at all—some women with flat closures opt to go bra-free.)
“The key is to listen to them to find out what type of lifestyle they want to get back to, so are they active physically? Are they a runner? Do they do Zumba? Are they someone that likes to go out and enjoy the nightlife dancing? Even the types of tops they want to wear – I find that a lot of women tend to want to hide because they are afraid that someone is going to look at them.”
The most popular line of mastectomy bras is Amoena. They offer great support and have pockets to insert a prosthesis. They have been my go-to bras since my surgery.
“The Amoena line is so versatile and covers so many different areas of need,” Lucas says. “It just needs to be a good fitting bra…If a woman has been fitted with compact prostheses – the one that sticks to your body—they can go back to pretty much wearing the style that they were previously wearing if she’s been fitted well. That may change depending on how much was removed and if she’s got a deep cave.”
When deciding on underwire versus a soft wire bra, you can go either way based on what makes you comfortable.
“There are times that an underwire does make a bra, and the prostheses fit better, but I will also tell them that if an individual is fitted properly with a soft cup bra, they can get the same support as they would with an underwire.”
One challenge I constantly face with mastectomy bras is the straps. It is normal to adjust straps quite a lot, but what tends to happen is they become looser over time and fall off. Lucas offers a tip to remedy the problem: when you have your bra adjusted, take a permanent black marker and run it underneath the metal sliding part so you remember the spot to readjust it to again. (Bras will stretch over time so you have to gradually tighten it, though.)
Do your prosthesis fitting at the same time as your bra fitting
Once the bra is sorted out, then comes the prosthesis. Experienced bra fitters will do both fittings together. They’ll teach you how to insert the prosthesis into the bra pocket, see how it looks on you in a mirror and experiment with its look and feel under a top.
“I’ve had some women come in for bra fittings [who] don’t have prostheses on that side, so it was also about educating them,” Lucas says. “It’s really important to have prostheses on the side that you had the mastectomy because it’s going to give you issues with your shoulders, your posture, and you may even have issues with your balance. It also affects how a bra fits you, so if you don’t have anything on that affected side to bring your other breasts back, you’re not going to find a bra that fits properly.”
If both of the women’s breasts have been removed, they have options to either stay flat-chested or get any size of a prosthesis they want. Mastectomy tattoos are another beautiful option.
Build a rapport with a small clothing boutique or sales associate
Unsure of where to begin with clothes after my recovery, I started dropping into a local place called Sweet Pea Boutique. When I became comfortable enough with the owner, Johanna Galipeau, I told her about my challenges figuring out what to wear, especially now having to wear a prosthetic breast on my right side. I began to trust her for advice as I learned that she helps many people like myself whose physical appearances have changed due to surgeries and other health issues.
“It’s tough to go into a mall with random people, trying to push a sale, so I think finding a great sales associate or small boutique that knows you and has your best interests is one of the best things you can do,” she says. “They will guide you through that and make it fun.”
Step outside of your clothing comfort zone
She changed my mind about clothing, especially the assumption I made about ruling out wearing low-fitting outfits, off-the-shoulder tops, spaghetti straps or halter tops.
“Clothing-wise, I think you need to step out of your box of what you think you like,” she says. “You need to try things on. Our bodies change all the time as we get older, as we go through a major health crisis. You aren’t the same person you were when you were buying clothes ten years ago, five years ago, so I think you need to step out of your comfort zone and try new styles, because you might be able to wear something you didn’t think you could wear before. It’s just trying new things on and getting to know your new body.”
Discover new ways to wear clothes you like—because there are no rules
Some tips she gave me included wearing dresses or tops that were looser fitting on top so people could not see the different breast sizes or unevenness. Also, if a top or dress was low fitting and I didn’t feel comfortable showing the mastectomy area, I could put a camisole or tank top underneath to make it look great.
For spaghetti strap dresses, you could wear it with a bra strap showing, of course, but if you didn’t feel comfortable, either wear a t-shirt under the dress for a chic look or a cute little cardigan over the dress or top to cover it.
“Don’t think you can or can’t wear anything. It’s what you are comfortable in,” she says. “Your body is beautiful, and it’s been through this amazing war story. Wear it proud…it comes down to feeling good with what you have on. If you don’t feel good in a fitting room, you will never wear it when you bring it home, so make sure you put it on when you are in the fitting room, and it feels good.”
There’s still pretty lingerie, bikinis and swimsuits
I assumed I could not wear lingerie and swimsuits—especially bikinis—anymore. But Amoena is now making bras that have a sexier look and feel. Additionally, they make all sorts of swimwear that have pockets to insert your prosthesis. Three years ago, I felt so comfortable with my body that I purchased a cute swimsuit with a skirt, and a one-piece bathing suit. Now, I wear that to the beach all the time and am not self-conscious because it provides support and fits my needs.
“Most of the swimsuits in the Amoena line come up a little bit higher, just to make sure you’re going to get the proper coverage and the proper support,” Lucas says. “They have bikinis, too.”
Conquer the mental game and love your body
Lastly, the main thing is more of a mental game. Your body has undergone a significant transformation; the battle is learning to accept and love your body after the changes. For me, that was the real battle because of not only the emotional but the physical scars. I had to understand and accept things were going to look and feel different. And this journey may require more than just a new set of clothes: I found help in sharing my challenges and fears with a psychologist, which helped during the healing process. I grew to love and accept my body, and began feeling normal in my skin again. It didn’t happen overnight, and having a great support system for encouragement helped me overcome my fear of clothing.