How cancer affects your wardrobe and style choices

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

OCTOBER 16, 2019

Cancer Survivor Clothes Shopping

After reading a recent column about changing wardrobes after cancer, I began to talk with some of my patients about their clothing issues and choices. It has been eye-opening, although it should not be surprising, that almost everyone has needed or chosen to make some changes in attire.

During chemotherapy, the emphasis is on comfort and head coverings. If the chemo drugs cause hair loss, most women opt to cover their heads. Certainly a few are brave enough to face the world without hair, but most of us look for wigs or hats or scarves. My own daily style was dictated by what was on my calendar. If it was a non-work day or even a workday when I would not be meeting any new patients, I usually wrapped a scarf around my head, sometimes adding a large brooch or a second braided scarf for added flair. Sometimes I chose a hat, but not a baseball hat, which I have never found comfortable. If I was meeting a new patient or going to meetings or doing something that demanded less of a cancer patient look, I put on the wig.

Losing one's hair from chemo, being bald, and then going through the very slow process of hair growth stimulates some people to change a long-standing hair style. A surprising number of women decide that they like the ease and look of short hair, but acknowledge that they never would have cut their long locks.

The second requirement of chemo attire is comfort. When spending a day at medical appointments or lounging in a chair in the Infusion Area, being comfortable is key. Some people are very skilled at this and include accessories to enhance coziness such as shawls, quilts for snuggling, fuzzy socks or even slippers. We had a few patients show up for chemo in pajamas which was a little disconcerting for everyone else, but actually made some senses.

People whose bodies are changed by surgery often need to think carefully about clothing. The obvious example is women who have had one or two mastectomies without reconstruction. Wearing a prosthesis makes the change invisible to the world, but some women feel comfortable being flat or lopsided. I have known a number of women, who had bilateral mastectomies, who found winter dressing with layers pretty simple, but were more challenged by hot weather attire. I am always impressed by those women who decide just to wear a t-shirt and not worry about their changed bodies. A goal for us all is to accept ourselves in the present.

Then there is a common issue of weight gain or loss. Do you try to manage with what is in the closet or do you accept reality and give away clothing that no longer fits? What if the dress fits but just does not hang the same way or look right on your post-chemo shape?

Several people spoke with me about their changed foot gear. If you have developed neuropathy from chemotherapy, you probably are only comfortable in flat shoes and specific shoes that don't pinch or rub. Some people experience foot and ankle swelling and are limited to sandals — not so bad in Florida, but a problem in northern winters.

People who have had ostomies need clothing that disguises a bag, yet gives them easy access to changing. People who have had an amputation need clothing that is easy to take on and off and comfortable. People with neuropathy can find buttons difficult. There is a company that specializes in clothing for people with cancer and body changes.

Looking on the bright side, cancer can be liberating. It matters less what other people think, and some people use this perspective to break out of a previous style. Some people choose brighter colors or flashier styles or clothes that just make them happy, fashion rules mattering less.

Windows of Hope, on Shapiro 9 and at the BIDMC Needham Cancer Center, is a specialty shop for people living with cancer. Check them out.

Has cancer changed your style? Share your story

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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