For women who have had partial or full mastectomies as a result of breast cancer, coping with the changes to their bodies and how these make them feel takes time, and a bra can be an important part of this process.
Finding a bra that fits well and is comfortable against tender scar tissue can be an important aid to well-being and helping women to regain their femininity. While it’s far from the case that the only bras available are unsightly, medical garments – see our feature on the latest post-surgery lingerie – there are more important considerations that simply appearance when selecting a bra after a mastectomy.
To help you understand what to look for in post-surgery bras and how to ensure the best possible fit, Fashion Bust spoke to Jemma Barnes, general manager of lingerie brand Anita UK.
Anita offers a specialist range of mastectomy bras and breast prostheses and has been working with lingerie retailers and breast care nurses in the UK to create a network of Centres of Excellence for mastectomy bra fitting to ensure every women who has undergone surgery receives the care and service she needs.
Jemma explains that it is important for women to go to a specialist fitter following surgery who has the expertise to assess their individual needs, as these will determine which products will be comfortable and beneficial for their well-being.
‘Most surgeons recommend a non-wired bra worn after breast surgery as this will generally be more comfortable and will also reduce the risk of future complications. However, post surgical bras are not simply non-wired bras with a pocket for a breast prosthesis; there is so much more to consider.’
What to look for in a bra
For post-surgery bras, there is a simple checklist for comfort and well-being, says Jemma, that highlights some of the key considerations.
Look for soft fabrics; deeper than average underarm bands for comfort over scar tissue; deeper centres for separation of the breast/breast form; a higher decolette for coverage and containment of the breast form and security when moving around; a defined underband to anchor the bra and ensure comfort without too much pressure; and broad or padded straps for comfort and prevention of lymphoedema.
Lymphoedema is a frequent side effect of breast surgery and is fluid retention that causes a swelling in the arm. ‘The risk is particularly high in ladies who have had to have lymph nodes removed as part of their surgery,’ Jemma explains.
‘Where this is the case not only should the bra be non-wired, but it should also be free of any side stiffeners sewn into the underarm area. Ideally, we would go one step further and recommend a bra that is either seam-free or has a covered seam to the underarm area.’
If all this sounds dauntingly technical and not at all sexy, you’ll be cheered to hear that it is possible to have both comfortable and attractive post-surgery lingerie. Brands are increasingly looking for ways to combine function with appealing design, and if wearing your favourite pre-surgery underwear is important to you, that’s possible too.
‘While we always recommend a pre-pocketed bra wherever possible for the best fit and highest levels of comfort, security and confidence, some normal bras can be adapted to hold breast forms,’ says Jemma.
‘Some ladies have an old favourite bra that they want to wear, and who are we to dictate that they cannot wear it? Also, women with fuller cups can be more restricted in their choice of pocketed bras.
‘In these cases, pockets can be sewn into regular bras to adapt then for breast form wearers, however, we always recommend discussing this option with a trained fitter who can advise on what is suitable and what is not.’
The importance of fit
The type of bra is only one part of the equation, however. The fit is just as vital, and for women who wear a full or partial breast form following a mastectomy or lumpectomy, wearing the wrong size bra can cause unnecessary discomfort.
‘You should always have your bra refitted before having a fitting for a prosthesis,’ says Jemma. ‘We all change size for a variety of reasons such as weight change, age, side effects of drugs or changes in regime, and in the case of a breast form wearer, the wrong size bra becomes a real problem.
‘The breast form fitter can only fit to the bra that is worn on the day. If this is the wrong size, the breast form will be as well, causing pain and discomfort.’
If this happens, visiting a bra fit specialist can correct the size of the bra, but unfortunately this will mean the breast form no longer fits. Prostheses are expensive to buy, and while some clinics will issue new ones free of charge, often they won’t be able to because of NHS guidelines which restrict the issuing of new breast forms to every two to three years.
So, if you are struggling with a bra or breast form that is uncomfortable, there is a solution out there that can make a huge difference to your day to day well-being. Your first port of call should be a specialist bra fitter who is experienced in mastectomy fittings. To find your nearest Anita Care Centre of Excellence, use the brand’s store locator.
This article is meant to offer general advice. If you have specific questions or concerns regarding your bra or breast form, discuss these with your bra fitter or breast care nurse.