It might sound frivolous -- who worries about fashion when she's fighting for her life? -- but part of the joy (and challenge) of surviving breast cancer is reaching the point where you're confident enough of your health again to start thinking about how you'll wear swimsuits or halter dresses.
For Jami Bernard, a New York film critic who battled breast cancer in 1996, an essential part of surviving breast cancer was learning to feel more comfortable with her body, and how it looked in clothing like swimsuits, lingerie, and short-sleeved shirts.
"It takes awhile to get used to the fact that your body looks different, and adjust to the fear that other people will find it offensive or weird-looking," she says. "I remember seeing a woman one summer who was wearing a very low-cut top, and I could see the top end of her surgical scar. I was so excited to see someone else who had a scar!"
Remember, says Bernard, the U.S. has an aging population, and more and more surgical options for treatment of various conditions. "More and more people will have scars. I'm not a 20-year-old bathing beauty, and it's not like I have to compare my body to others," she says. "I've seen other people with scars, and I feel heartened to see that they're not ashamed of them."
Bras: Choose from Lacy, Demure and Sporty
If you choose not to have reconstruction after a mastectomy and still want sexy lingerie options, you're in luck. We've come a long way from the days when mastectomy bras all looked like something even your great-grandmother would have found too clunky. Victoria's Secret hasn't jumped on the trend yet (are you listening?), but other lingerie manufacturers, including Playtex, Jodee, and Amoena, sell mastectomy bras of all kinds: plunging, lacy, demure, sporty.
Your local department store might not carry them, so look for a specialty shop, possibly in the medical center where you were treated. You can also order online at shops like Nicola Jane (www.nicolajane.com). If you want even more variety, some department stores, notably Nordstrom's, will often add prosthesis pockets at little or no charge to any bra it sells.
Your doctor may have advised you to avoid underwire bras, especially if you've had lymph nodes removed. (A protruding wire could easily jab you in an area that's lost some sensation after surgery, cutting your skin and leaving you open to infection.) For large-breasted women, that can pose a problem.
"My doctors told me not to wear an underwire, since I have no feeling where I had my lumpectomy," says Bernard. "So for the longest time, I never wore underwires, and it wasn't the most flattering look." Then a friend found an underwire bra at a maternity store. "It has a very short wire, and it's never going to poke out or up in the wrong place. So there are some styles that you can wear, and you may be able to find them at a maternity store."
Finding Attractive Swimsuits and Evening Wear
Swimsuits are often one of the biggest challenges for women who've had breast cancer. "I like to swim, and at first I was embarrassed to wear a swimsuit at the gym," says Bernard. "But a lot of swimsuits are cut high under the arms or at the neckline, and I find that no one notices my scars." Need a suit with pockets for a breast prosthesis? Land's End sells a couple of different options, including a tank suit and a high-neck tankini for two-piece wear.
What about evening wear? If you're worried about a scar showing when you wear a halter dress or a low-cut gown, you have more style options than ever before. "Shawls are very fashionable nowadays, and they allow you to cover up in a way that's stylish," says McCabe. Other options for evening wear cover-ups include lacy capelets (hugely popular this season) and elegant faux-fur shoulder wraps.