So, you’ve had a mastectomy, and you’re on the road to recovery. Physically, you’re feeling great. But cosmetically - well, that’s a different story.
Unless you’re very small-breasted, you can’t wear your old bras or swimsuits anymore; that one empty side doesn’t look right. So you have a decision to make: you can choose to go bra-less; wear your current bra, and stuff the empty side yourself; or get a breast form - which requires a new bra, one with a pocket to hold it in place.
First, determine if you’ll need a special bra. Not all women who have a mastectomy need a new bra afterwards. If you’re having further surgery for breast reconstruction or implants, you’ll probably be able to go back to your favorite bras, though perhaps in a different size.
But if you’re done with surgery, and will be wearing a prosthesis (breast form), you’ll need a special mastectomy bra - as well as a specially designed bathing suit - to hold that breast form in place.
You’re no doubt anxious to get your mastectomy, and all it entails, behind you. But don’t even think about shopping for a special bra till your chest has completely healed from the surgery, and all the swelling has disappeared. Be patient; this may take up to a couple of months.
In the meantime, wear whatever undergarment feels most comfortable. Many women find a camisole, or a camisole with soft cups, is perfect. Others prefer a stretchy sports bra, one offering good overall support for your entire chest area. Just be sure you don’t wear anything that’s tight or binding right under your natural breast line, as it’s bound to be uncomfortable, and could delay your recovery.
Once you’ve healed, your first task is to purchase a breast form, or several forms for different occasions - e.g., an assortment in slightly different sizes and shapes and materials, for everyday wear; and a lightweight, waterproof form for swimming.
Your breast form will be nice and soft.
Generally made of soft silicone gel with a polyurethane coating, breast forms are designed to weigh the same as breast tissue, so that they hang right, move naturally, and help you feel balanced. Ask your surgeon’s nurse about how and where to shop for a breast form.
When you’re ready to go bra-shopping, find a good fitter. The hospital or cancer center where you had your surgery should be able to recommend someone local, a professional fitter who specializes in mastectomy undergarments.
You want to work with someone who understands the particular surgery you had; your needs going forward, and what type of bra might best fit those needs.
Most important, you want someone who treats you with respect, understanding, and gentle care. This is an emotional time for you, and you want to connect with someone who’s had experience dealing with women in your situation.
Breast forms come in different sizes and shapes, for different types of clothing.
Understanding what kind of bra you need; why, and what’s available will help you make the best selection. Different types of surgery, and different sizes of breasts, call for different types of breast forms and bras.
For instance, some mastectomy bras may require two pockets, one in front and one on the side.
A regular breast form for everyday…
…and a smaller one for your low-cut blouse.
In addition, you’ll find that mastectomy bras come in all different styles, including designs for business wear, casual wear, or low-cut for evening wear.
Breast forms for swimsuits are often hollow on one side, to be lighter in the water.
Again, don’t forget a new swimsuit; your fitter will be able to guide you to a reliable source for mastectomy swimwear. Lands’ End (landsend.com) has long been known as THE place to go for comfortable, fashion-forward mastectomy swimsuits.
The form folds over easily so you can slip it into the pocket in your bathing suit’s bra.
A good thing to do before you start shopping is to check out what your health insurance plan will cover. Mastectomy bras can be quite expensive. Also, because of what they’re required to do - carry the full weight of your breast form - they can wear out fairly quickly.
Most insurance plans, as well as Medicare, will pay for a certain number of mastectomy bras on a certain time schedule. Understand your possible financial commitment before you start shopping, and you won’t have any unpleasant surprises to deal with when the bills come due.
Finding a good mastectomy bra and swimsuit - something that fits, is comfortable, and looks great - can seem daunting at first. But you’ll find that the folks at your cancer center or hospital - as well as those at your local office of the American Cancer Society - will be a great resource as you follow this part of your path to recovery.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.