Dressing after a Mastectomy

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work, Emeritus

SEPTEMBER 18, 2018

Tips for Looking and Feeling Yourself

 Any woman who has a mastectomy knows that one of the worries is how to dress and look pretty with her new body. Women who have had reconstruction may have fewer concerns, but there are often changes in their appearance, too. If the reconstruction is the type with expanders (that will eventually be switched out to implants), the size of one’s breasts changes over time. With any type, however, there may be subtle differences in size compared to the natural breasts, and it takes time to be comfortable with one’s new self.

Immediately after surgery, you will be the most comfortable in oversized shirts that button or zip in the front. Lifting your arms over your head may not be possible for a little while, and there probably will be drains to manage. Raid your husband’s closet or borrow a few things from friends.

Generally speaking, it is always possible to look completely normal after a mastectomy—when you are dressed. I know a number of women who feel that a reconstructed breast is obviously a different size than the remaining natural one, and they may feel the need to camouflage that difference. In that case, patterned tops move the eye away from close examination and solve the problem.

If you have had a single mastectomy without reconstruction, the issue is matching the other side. Some women choose to not wear a prosthesis and to find dignity in going natural. I know a few women who have always been very flat-chested who think there is not much of an obvious difference. One woman wears leotards at ballet class and is comfortable with one breast and one not.

Most of us, and this includes me, are not that brave and opt for a prosthesis. Once you have been fitted and are physically comfortable, you can mostly wear whatever is in your closet. The exception may be that the upper part of your chest, on the missing breast side, is slightly concave. If this is the case, low cut tops will display this difference. Again, some women care and some don’t.

If you have had a bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction, there are several options. Some women choose to go flat while others wear two prostheses. There are also bras available at some lingerie stores that are padded or otherwise intended to enhance existing breasts, but can work with no breasts.  If you choose not to wear a prosthesis, think about wearing layers; this is easier in the winter when jackets cover everything. A long scarf, left dangling, or a wrapped shawl also can cover a flat chest. Consider adding large earrings or a necklace or something to catch the eye. Again, tops with patterns may work better than solid colors.

There is a terrific website, BreastFree.org, created by a BIDMC patient who had bilateral mastectomies without reconstruction, that has pictures, more fashion advice, and everything you ever wanted to know about prostheses. There are a range of prostheses available, including custom-made ones that mimic an absent breast. The Windows of Hope shop, on Shapiro 9, can arrange an appointment with a bra and prosthesis fitter who will meet you in a private spot.

There are also patterns online for knitted prostheses that can be a cheerful choice. Think about having one that is bright red with sequins or feathers. Check out: KnittedKnockers.org.

The important message is that there are solutions, good ones, and that your body is still yours to present and use as you choose.  As one of our beloved breast surgeons likes to say: “Some women have two breasts; some have one, and some have none. They are all beautiful.”

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