Reader Request: Dressing a Post-mastectomy Figure

chikara

Reader Allison e-mailed me this question:

I am a 37 year old petite woman who loves clothing and style and am quite healthy and in excellent shape. I have enjoyed reading your blog because you seem to be able to address style issues for a variety of body types. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of the month and will soon be undergoing single mastectomy with reconstruction. There will be a period of time for several months where I will have an asymmetric bust while the plastic surgeon is working on increasing the size of the tissue expander that will ultimately be exchanged for an implant that matches the healthy side.

All of my clothes are form-fitting, with scooped necks/ v necks. I would really appreciate suggestions for some new styles or some ways to work with what I own so that I can make this as un-obvious as possible. I know that looking good and more like myself and not always feeling self-conscious about this will ultimately make this very difficult thing much easier to deal with.

So. I know that some of you have direct experience with this health, personal, and dressing challenge. I do not. So I’m going to offer up a couple of ideas and suggestions, but really want this post to be a launchpad for discussion and resource sharing. Here’s what I know, much of which is fairly obvious:

  • There are loads of resources for breast forms if you’ve had a single mastectomy and prefer to give the visual impression of two breasts. I have searched around a bit and found dozens upon dozens of sites selling forms, bras that accommodate them, camis designed for forms, and other related items … but would rather have those of you who have bought and used some of these products recommend specific vendors and websites. Please chime in in the comments!
  • If you’ve had a double or single mastectomy and prefer to downplay that fact, you can do so with ruffles, draping, and other garment features that add volume to the bust. Asymmetric ruffles, gathers, and drapes work best for a single, while similar design elements that cover the entire collarbone and upper chest area work best for doubles.
  • Scarves can also be a great tool if you’d prefer to distract and downplay. Larger scarves – either lightweight or thicker – that can be looped and draped several times will fill out the neck and chest area. The fake infinity scarf tie is ideal for this purpose.
  • The main company that I know of that provides truly gorgeous garments designed for post-mastectomy bodies is Chikara Design. I found out about this brand right around the time I started blogging, and am delighted to see that they’re still thriving. And they’ve expanded beyond clothing – beautifully designed tops and dresses – into swimwear, lingerie, and activewear. The stuff isn’t cheap and you could certainly just look for items with similar features. But the mission of this brand and the gorgeous duds it creates are both worth supporting.

After we first corresponded, Allison sent me this update:

I also found out that the free alterations done by Nordstrom applies to their bras. They will sew pockets into any of their bras for customers who use breast prostheses!! I was super happy to find out that I can wear the same perfectly-fitted, pretty bras that I usually wear with a little adaptation while I am undergoing reconstruction.

So that’s a starter list of ideas and resources. I am absolutely certain that some of you have undergone mastectomies or have loved ones and friends who’ve had this surgery. Please chime in and share! What dressing techniques do you recommend? Shops or designers do you love? Any other resources to share? Thanks in advance for contributing to this important discussion.

Images courtesy Chikara Design

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  • http://notdeadyetstyle.blogspot.com/ Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    I love what Nordie’s does for their customers. Great post, Sal.

  • Virginia

    First, Allison, welcome to the sisterhood. I’m sorry you’ve been inducted, but now that you are, please know that it IS a sisterhood. There are warriors all around you to help you on this journey. Reach out. We’re here.

    All of Sally’s points are spot on. Here’s what I’ve learned in my own experience. (diagnosed 11/09; single mastectomy, TRAM flap reconstruction, chemo, radiation, now happy and healthy.) Recommendations in chronological order.

    Post-surgical: there are special bras that fasten in the front and have pockets for any temporary forms you may use. These are more vest-like for post-surgical soreness. Also, comfy tops that button in the front are easiest to wear until your arm has regained full mobility.

    Allison didn’t mention chemo or radiation, but I’ll throw in a couple of tips here: Chemo — if your hair falls out, this is a wonderful source for hats, scarves, wigs, and eyebrows. http://www.headcovers.com/. For radiation, to protect your skin, you’ll need to slather yourself with aloe or aquaphor. Great stuff, but it soaks through your bra and clothes, so don’t wear the expensive stuff to radiation.

    After my reconstruction, I found that underwire bras were very uncomfortable. For a while (the first year or so after surgery) sports bras were the most comfortable. Now I’m back in regular bras, but still no underwire. They were unable to save my nipple, and I chose not to have one reconstructed, so I prefer bras with bit more padding to avoid any winking issues.

    Solutions for the asymmetrical issue: In addition to Sally’s suggestions, I’ve found prints to be the best way to camouflage any “issues.” Also, fit is very important — the more body hugging the top, the more obvious any asymmetry. The same is true for clingy knits; they may cling to areas where you don’t want clinging. I’ve found that a heavier weight in tees and knit tops gives me just that extra amount of coverage and drape that hides what should be hidden while still letting me look like a woman. All this is not to say that you have to give up form fitting tops, just be pickier about fit. Try stuff on, you’ll know what you’re comfortable with. BTW, all those lovely scarves that covered your head during chemo can now be used as stylish accessories! In cooler weather, cardigans or blazers can cover up anything that you want covered up. They don’t have to be buttoned; open is fine.

    The basic rule is to avoid the blank canvas situation where any and all bumps are immediately obvious and unevenness is very evident.

    Lastly, during my treatment, I found that lipstick was a wonderful weapon. Find some great colors that brighten your face and your outlook. You’ll be pulling attention toward your face (and away from your chest) and you’ll be giving yourself a boost of confidence. If you have the opportunity to attend a Look Good Feel Better event, please go. It is a free event that focuses using makeup to over cancer-related beauty issues. Learn more here: http://lookgoodfeelbetter.org/

    Sending prayers and strength you way, Allison. You will come through this stronger, more confident, and more beautiful.

    • Jen

      In similar veins to the lipstick, maybe give nice earrings a try? When I went to chemo with my dad, there was a former breast cancer patient that made sparkly and/or chandelier style earrings for female cancer patients. She said that jewelry helped her to feel feminine when she struggled with that.

  • Rose

    Depending on how your implant reconstruction is done you may have a 2-6 month period where your reconstructed side changes size as they expand it. In the beginning you’ll pad your mastectomy side, eventually you may pad your real side as your expanded side will be bigger.

    There are many products on the market for this experience, but I don’t know that I’d buy any of them as they’re usually expensive and will only be used temporarily. Oftentimes you can go to a sewing supply store and try out shoulder pads or sew-in bra pads and they’ll give you the curves you want. Silicone push-up cutlets can be helpful, those are available at Target/Walmart.

    I found that it’s best to stick with tops with patterns. If one side is a little higher/lower than the other a pattern as opposed to a stripe draws the eye away. Layers and jackets/shirts over tanks are a way to distract the eye from any lumps, bumps or unevenness.

    You can try out “Lady Grace” for online lingerie and aids. Everyone will tell you to have a bra fitting, but hold off until your reconstruction is final. Bra fitters always sell expensive bras so you want to be close to your final situation before buying them. http://www.breastcancer.org has several boards with helpful advice.

    Good luck and I hope that once your surgery is over that you’re done with breast cancer for good. Losing a breast is upsetting but it’s way better than dying.

  • http://www.janelmessenger.com Janel M

    I don’t have any personal experience to add. I just wanted to well wish and say I’m excited to find out about the Chikara line.

  • Shirley H

    In Dec 2006, at the age of 47, I had bilateral mastectomies with expanders for reconstruction inserted. Even though I was in quite good physical condition, this surgery really knocked me for a loop: it took me almost 2 weeks to recover my strength and endurance for even minor everyday things, so be warned (I mean, this IS major surgery, after all). I also found that front-fastening garments and bras were much more comfortable for the first few weeks. I was very sore from the surgery (my muscles weren’t very happy about those expanders in my chest either), and it hurt to raise my arms to put shirts/sweaters on over my head. Sports bras were the most comfortable because they provided some compression while my incisions were healing, as well as when saline was injected into the expanders to start gently stretching my pectoral muscles (my expanders were placed between the minor and major pectorals). Just thought I’d give you observations from my experience… Good luck!!

  • Allison

    Hi there – 4 months out from my mastectomy and doing well. I was able to get the mastectomy and reconstruction done in one step, so I didn’t have the asymmetry issues I was worried about, but I do have some thoughts/ tips about dressing after a mastectomy:

    1) Button-down shirts a little roomier than you would normally wear go over a camisole quite nicely and leave room for post-surgical drains and make them less obvious.

    2) Most insurance companies cover post-mastectomy bras and most breast cancer centers have staff who are knowledgeable about fit. I have a couple of really lovely Amoena bras that have enough padding to camouflage the slight asymmetry I have after reconstruction and they also have pockets for breast prostheses if you need that. They are super pretty and high quality.

    3) I totally agree with Sally about using scarves. As the swelling was going down on my surgery side, I wore lots of scarves and my best girlfriends and husband swore that they couldn’t tell.

    4) I do not have lympedema (swelling in the arm of the side of the mastectomy), but this is an issue for some women who have had breast cancer surgery. In researching fashion options for women who have had breast cancer and complications from surgery, I found Lymphedivas (http://www.lymphedivas.com/) which is a company that makes gorgeous, high quality lymphedema compression sleeves which are a much nicer than the scratchy, thick beige ones offered by hospital supply stores. Seriously, these things are really pretty and do not look like medical items of clothing.

  • Amy

    A friend of mine had a single masectomy at age 35. One thing she did during the transition to reconstruction was focus on making her backside look sexy. She purchased form fitting pants and pencil skirts for work and skimpy shorts to lounge in at home around her husband. Losing her hair and breast was very difficult, and focusing on another part of her body that made her feel feminine helped.

    My friend has been cancer free for 4 years and is actually a volunteer for the Look Good, Feel Better program now! (She is a hair stylist).

    I hope you kick cancer’s ass, Allison!

  • Carol

    This is a little off topic since I didn’t have a mastectomy, but maybe someone will find my experience helpful.

    Almost 17 years ago, when I was 42, I had a lumpectomy which resulted in the removal of about 2/3 of my breast. Reconstruction was a possibility but only after chemo and radiation, and at that point I didn’t want any more surgery! Strangely, I was not given any information on breast prostheses. The only bras I could wore for years were stretchy sports bras, which offered little support and did nothing to hide the lopsided look. I finally figured out that I could get a prosthesis and mastectomy bras, all of which were covered by my insurance. I also got fitted for bras as part of the deal. I went to a medical device specialist that deals mainly in breast protheses – your doctor should be able to recommend someone in your area. What a life changing experience! If you want even a temporary prosthesis, I can tell you they are very comfortable. The mastectomy bras are available in a variety of styles. You may want to consider this for a short term solution, especially if the expense is covered insurance.

    I wish you the best of luck with your reconstructive surgery and the best of health in the future.

  • Caro

    So sorry to hear you’re going through this, Alison. The reconstruction can take months and is sometimes uncomfortable. I’d say a few things can get you through. Loose, colourful, natural fabrics are good. Boat necks rather than V-necks. Layering clothes is good: a colourful silk cami that fits quite closely may cover up scars and still look good under another garment. A beautiful scarf or two – ask your sewing/knitting friends for help! A gorgeous new necklace. And depending where you live, there may be advice out there from a breast nurse or a support organisation, re the right bra etc. Once you’re able to wear a normal bra, Lovable and Berlei both make bras without underwiring and with a bit of padding on the cups which can look really good – and they come in some great colours. Find a shop that has trained staff to help you with fitting. Good luck.

  • http://corpgoth.blogspot.com/ Trystan (the CorpGoth)

    Coming in late. I will note that sports bras are not the only option – you *can* find non-underwire bras, even ones that are moderately attractive & not terribly expensive. Since my lumpectomy last June, I’ve been wearing soft bras I bought at Target. I’m almost done with radiation, & still find these pretty comfortable (& while the sharpie marks & aquaphor associated with rads haven’t stained them, if they did, I won’t mind throwing out these bras bec. they weren’t expensive!).

    I also second the advice on accessorizing. Chemo, in particular, made me amp up my earring & lipstick use. Big, bold earrings, & richly colored lipstick is a lovely distraction from being bald & not being able to wear a fitted shirt for months. I’m mostly wearing wigs on my blog, but you can see some examples if you click the link at my name.