For any woman, undergoing surgery for breast cancer is a devastating experience. Not only are you confronted with the possibility of losing your life, but the removal of your breast brings about a sudden and distressing change in appearance.
Related treatments such as chemotherapy and hormone therapy, which lead to weight gain and hair loss, make matters worse.
Regaining your confidence can be a real struggle, but it's possible to look good and feel self-assured after breast surgery.
After a mastectomy, the majority of women will feel attractive and confident if their loss of a breast or breasts is not obvious to others. What you wear underneath your clothes is just as important as your clothes themselves. A good breast form and the right bra are essential.
Wear the right breast form
Prostheses come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and when it comes to selecting the right one for you it's important to look for one that is not only a match for your remaining breast, if you've undergone a single mastectomy, but also your lifestyle and requirements.
Generally speaking, there are two main types.The 'insert prostheses' fit inside and are supported by your bra. The second type is the 'contact prostheses', which stick directly to your chest wall. The latter feels most like a natural breast because the weight is held against the body. It also gives you more choice in the types of clothes you can wear, as it requires a less supportive bra.
If you lead an active lifestyle, have a large bust or lymphoedema, then a lightweight version of one of those breast forms might be the best choice for you. Above all, it's important to remember that breast form products are continually improving, both in terms of look and comfort.
Your medical team or breast care nurse will be able to advise you where you can get a fitting, be it with a specialist retailer or a breast form manufacturer.
Wear a good fitting bra
As if losing a breast or breasts wasn't hard enough, worrying about accidentally exposing your prosthesis is a constant concern for women who've undergone a mastectomy.
But most problems with 'wandering' breast forms, or 'gaping', are actually caused by ill-fitting bras. For example, a bra that's too big may cause your breast form to move around within the cup, or to ride up when you raise your arms. A bra that's too small will squash your prosthesis, causing it to protrude and possibly even pop out.
To ensure your prosthesis stays firmly in place and out of sight, you should regularly check that your bra is the correct size. Many women continue to wear the same size bra year after year, forgetting to take into account even slight variations caused by weight loss or gain. Most high street department stores and lingerie shops offer a complimentary bra-fitting service. Some even offer a specialist postsurgery service. Before you hit the high street, phone up and find out.
The majority of women state that one of the most upsetting aspects of a mastectomy is that after surgery they're unable to buy feminine, sexy underwear. They're forced to choose from dull ranges of hefty mastectomy 'pocket' bras with thick straps that limit their choice of clothing.
Having to wear these items or to throw away their presurgery lingerie reduces many women to tears. But this needn't be the case. Once you know your correct bra size, then you can select any normal bra style, as long as it offers the following features:
- good separation between the cups
- a cup that encases the breast form securely
- a structure that supports the breast form fully and comfortably
Obviously, half-cup styles such as balconette bras wouldn't be suitable. But, with the advent of contact prosthesis and lightweight breast forms, a far wider range of underwear is now available to women post surgery. Nowadays, even strapless bras, providing that they encase the breast form and offer adequate support, aren't out of the question.
A specialist surgery bra fitter will be able to advise you on all the styles available to you.
There's lots of confusion about the suitability of underwired bras. If you wore this style of bra before your surgery, you may be able to continue to do so, as long as your scarring has healed, which usually takes a period of 12 months after surgery, and you feel comfortable.
However, it's always best to check with your breast care nurse or specialist postsurgery bra fitter. Underwiring will help support the breast form, but it's important to make sure that it sits on top of the wiring. If the cup is too small, the wire will press on the breast form and will eventually damage it.
So how do you dress to look good after a mastectomy?
After breast surgery, it's common to feel less attractive. The sudden and enforced change to your body shape can lead to a loss of self esteem and confidence, which in turn affects your body image.
Many women, even previously confident and stylish individuals, respond by covering up more, hiding themselves beneath dark, baggy shapes and layers. Clothes shopping for your new body shape can be a distressing experience. Summer clothing, in particular, is difficult. As for undressing in public, the very prospect of communal changing rooms is enough to deter some women.
The key to regaining your confidence and feeling good about yourself is to stop focusing on your 'problem' area. Many women develop a distorted body image, believing that their breast loss is far more visible to others than in reality it is.
But, with the right breast form and bra, you can be confident that no one will know, unless you tell them. Don't be afraid to show off this area.
Fight the urge to shy away from revealing necklines and eye-catching accessories. If you're concerned about high scarring or lack of breast tissue on your chest wall, then get a friend whom you trust to take a long hard look at you in your clothes and give you an honest opinion. You may be surprised just how much of your décolletage you can reveal before anything untowards becomes apparent.
If you've fallen in love with a dress or top but the neckline is too revealing, don't reject it out of hand. Make it less plunging with a brooch, or by wearing it with a camisole or vest top underneath.