A Bra Expert on the 4 Best Bras for Breast Cancer Survivors
“No one tells you when you have a mastectomy that your bra size will change,” says Constance Bramer, 52, the author of How Connie Got Her Rack Back, a book about her experience with breast cancer.
After her surgery at age 39, Constance struggled to find a bra. “I found myself thinking, ‘Doesn’t anyone make a 34C minus?’ [I was] no longer a full C cup, yet still a C,” she says. While she found humor in the situation, breast cancer survivors do find the struggle to find good bras very real, especially after a mastectomy or lumpectomy, which can completely change the body.
Lisa Lurie was diagnosed at 47 with invasive ductal breast cancer. “In a matter of two weeks, I underwent a double mastectomy without reconstruction,” she says.
“It was devastating. I could barely look in the mirror,” Lisa recalls. “A friend of my sister’s came over one day, and she told me that she, too, had undergone a double mastectomy and that it was time for me to go bra shopping. We went to a mastectomy boutique together, and for the first time, I could see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
According to BreastCancer.org, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Many of those women will find themselves unable to use the bras they once wore confidently. For these women, finding the right bra fit is an essential part of the healing process.
What Is a Mastectomy & Why Would It Change the Breasts?
There are a few different kinds of surgeries women may have on the breasts after a diagnosis or because of genetic factors. Some of these procedures include the following:
- Prophylactic mastectomy. This surgery is performed on women who are at a high risk of developing cancer due to genetics and other factors.
- Lumpectomy or only partial removal of the breast. In this case, she may not have an immediate reconstruction in case the cancer comes back and more tissue needs to be removed. Alternatively, if the tumor is small enough, a lumpectomy may be performed, but that could often leave patients with uneven breasts.
- A staged reconstruction. This is where a surgeon places temporary tissue expanders to gradually stretch the muscle and skin in the area. Eventually, implants are put in their place. But the breasts are different shapes and sizes throughout the process.
- A total mastectomy. In this surgery, the breast tissue, areola, nipple, and associated skin or muscle of one or both breasts is removed, sometimes including the surrounding lymph nodes. This leaves the chest completely altered, and depending on whether she wants reconstruction, it can be permanent.
How Bra Needs Change After a Mastectomy
If you’ve undergone some type of lumpectomy or mastectomy, your doctor will recommend you wear a special type of bra afterward, not only to support sensitive tissue but also to combat any swelling and soreness. In some cases, you may be allowed to insert a breast form or prosthetic breasts to give the appearance you had before. Your skin might also be super sensitive around the incision sites, so you’ll want a soft bra that won’t rub or irritate that area in any way.
What Is a Mastectomy Bra?
A mastectomy bra looks similar to any other bra, with one big difference: It has stretchy pockets on the inside of the cups to accommodate a prosthetic breast. These bras are often made with fabrics that are more suitable for sensitive skin and tissue, such as microfiber or soft cotton.
A mastectomy bra often has a wider band (to accommodate the lack of an underwire, because an underwire can press against sensitive tissue and lymph nodes). It’ll often also have front closures of either velcro or even magnets to make it easily accessible for a woman with a sore upper body and a limited range of motion.
“Front closure is a great option because, after having breast surgery, using your chest muscles is difficult,” explains Kerry Spindler, a cancer survivor based in Boston. “Reaching around to undo a bra can be difficult and painful.”
For many breast cancer survivors, comfort outweighs aesthetics. “It’s not just about having the proper padding or pockets to disguise any imperfections, it’s also about comfort—especially under the armpits where lymph nodes are often removed—and ease of use, meaning something that’s easy to access with a front close or stretchy enough to pull over my head,” Bramer says.
Bras for 4 Post-Mastectomy Scenarios
Here are some options that meet all the criteria for comfort, practicality, and support as a person recovers from major surgery:
1. A Bra for Women Who’ve Had a Total Mastectomy with Expanders
This type of procedure usually includes the removal of the breast tissue, areola, nipple, and oftentimes, the surrounding lymph nodes that extend up into the armpit. Those who go this route can often go back to wearing “normal” bras of their choosing about a year after surgery.
Suggested bra: The founder of intimate apparel brand Cosabella, Valeria Campello, is a breast cancer survivor. For that reason, her line includes the Never Say Never Post-Surgical Front Closure Bralette ($89 at Cosabella). It offers the brand’s iconic soft Italian lace allover, with a front hook and eye closure, pockets for breast forms, and an opening for drainage (for immediately after surgery) as well as allover light compression to help combat swelling, in sizes up to 38D.
2. A Bra for Women Who’ve Had a Total Mastectomy Without Reconstruction
Some women who undergo a mastectomy opt not to have reconstruction, and they may wear breast forms. This means they’ll need a bra that comfortably accommodates prosthetics for everyday wear.
Suggested bra: Jean Criss was a single mom of two young kids when that dreaded call from the doctor came. After battling breast cancer, she founded an intimate apparel line just for survivors called CrissCross Intimates. This Strappy Lace Halter Bralette ($38 at CrissCross) is a simple, soft, stretchy microfiber bra that’s perfect for everyday wear.
3. A Bra for Women Who’ve Had a Partial Mastectomy or Lumpectomy
This type of operation removes the cancer and oftentimes some of the surrounding tissue, but not the breast itself. “My doctor just moved some tissue around to make my breasts look even,” says Andrea Ferris, from Rye, New York, who was diagnosed in 2008 at age 53.
Suggested bra: Essential Bodywear is an innovative company that specializes in at-home bra fitting parties for convenience and also to help customers get exactly the right fit and style for them. The Ava style ($79 at Essential Bodywear) is a favorite among women who’ve had a partial mastectomy or a lumpectomy, because of its unique crisscross design that keeps the natural position and shape of the bust and allows for a prosthetic on one or both sides. The power mesh neckline trims the body-contouring four-way stretch foam cup, offering stability and comfort with a modern, sexy look.
4. A Bra for the Time Immediately After Any Breast Surgery
After any breast surgery, you’ll need a bra that not only soothes and supports the sensitive breast area but also will get you safely through those first couple weeks of healing.
Suggested bra: It’s important to have a bra that offers compression after surgery, to help keep swelling at bay, says Spindler. The ISRA Front Closure Wire-Free Post Operative Bra by Anita (find a store near you that sells this) is specially designed to do just that—and literally molds to your skin. It’s designed to fit like a sports bra but has Velcro closures for easy fastening when you’re post-op.
Whether you’re recovering from breast surgery or just embarking on the process, don’t give up. “This journey to find the right bra has been full of trials and tribulations,” Bramer says. “Eventually, you will find the one that gives you that aha moment and allows you to feel comfortable and confident.”
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