Two weeks after undergoing a mastectomy, breast cancer survivor Jennifer Schultz was taking the bus with her 11-year-old daughter when she fell at a particularly brutal stop, landing on her chest. She did everything in her power not to scream, afraid of scaring her daughter by her side. But she was also concerned of what might happen if she didn’t find the right bra — the right protection — sooner than later.
A mastectomy involves the removal of one or both breasts. Schultz says she not only looked but felt different after her procedure — she didn’t feel like a “whole woman.” Schultz visited lingerie shop after lingerie shop, only to be repeatedly turned away when she asked for a mastectomy bra.
A mastectomy bra is designed to take everything into consideration post-surgery, including shape, adjustability, closures, as well as comfort and style. For cancer survivors, the right bra can hold great power, helping individuals feel better — physically and emotionally — after the shock of surgery.
As a single mom with limited income, Shultz grew so frustrated with what was available to her that she tore up her list of potential bra fitters into confetti and threw them up in the air. “I couldn’t afford what I needed.”
But the next day, she pieced her courage and list back together and called the final entry: After Breast Cancer (ABC), a charity founded in 2013 by bra and prosthesis fitter Alicia Vianga, that provides mastectomy wear for women who might not have access to it.
“Having just one breast, it’s very hard to wear anything,” says Schultz. “I couldn’t wear my clothes, my hair was slowly growing back, I was going through chemo and I didn’t look like me.”
But then ABC fitted her with a prosthesis and a mastectomy bra, and when she put on a brand new dress, “for the first time in months I stood up, shoulders back, looked at myself in the mirror, and started crying. I only had two happy cries in this whole process, one when I found out I didn’t pass my breast cancer gene to my daughter, and this. I was liberated.”
Many people might not be aware of mastectomy wear until they or someone they know has breast cancer. It can all be quite overwhelming, as it may mean wearing a prosthesis: an artificial breast-shaped piece often made of silicone gel, foam or fibre-fill which sits inside the bra to mimic the shape of a breast.Mastectomy bras come with pockets that hold the prosthesis in place, which you can even wear while swimming, and for longer or shorter term periods.
In addition, post-surgery, some might feel soreness or have drains in place, and so wearing a normal bra would exacerbate that pain. Experts recommend wearing a wireless bra or one with front closures that you can put on without raising your arms. You can even opt for post-surgical camisoles, which have breast drains inside pouches placed in the front, just below the breasts and out of view. If you have lymphedema, there are also compression garments available.
Because this can be a whole new world to explore, bra fitters — like Vianga — are essential. She created ABC whilst operating her own boutique, the Toronto-based Premier Jour Fine Lingerie & Swimwear, after she met a woman looking for mastectomy wear, only to watch her run out in tears after realizing she couldn’t afford it – much like Schultz, who is now an ABC Board Ambassador.
“That was my journey, speaking to these women who would come in and tell me their stories. It has been a labor of love helping these women love themselves,” says Vianga, who worked with the University Health Network to build ABC and to create a comprehensive prosthesis guide for all women after noticing the one being used by the healthcare system left a lot to be desired.
In fact, many of the women leading organizations and boutiques like these feel a profound motivation to support those on their breast cancer journey and make it even a smidge more comfortable.
Take, for example, Dianne Gamble who, 36 years ago, foundedDianne’s Mastectomy in her hometown of Brampton in hopes of being able to provide cancer survivors with a safe space to source bras. Her store offers the largest selection of post-mastectomy bras in Ontario. She also offers fittings, and has worked with doctors, surgeons and nurse practitioners to determine what is best for her customers and to offer up-to-date information on breast health. Gamble even donates post-mastectomy items to developing countries where aftercare is more of an afterthought, including Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Costa Rica and Mexico. Her products are so comfortable that many of her customers haven’t even had mastectomies — they just love the bras.
“Finding the right bra during this time is very important for body security purposes and for your own self-confidence,” says Gamble. “It’s also an opportunity to be fitted with the proper sized bra — as we know so many women are not wearing the correct size — so that they can get up in the morning and feel comfortable. I can’t tell you how many women I have worked with who, after I’ve fitted them, will say, ‘I have never felt this comfortable in my whole life. It took surgery to get to this.’”
Many brands are now offering mastectomy swimwear as well, which typically features a special pocket to secure breast forms (which are designed to be safe in chlorine), along with a fitted band and a rising neckline to maintain structure and hide scarring, and more breathable material. Popular swimwear brands include Anita and Amoena, and with Spanish designer label Mango announcing plans to launch mastectomy swimwear and underwear earlier this year, mastectomy swimwear could soon become bigger business.
And just because mastectomy bras have a medical aspect to them, they’re not any less attractive than standard bras. As Gamble notes, “Everybody’s afraid they’re going to have to wear these old granny things. But [these bras] can be colourful, they can be attractive, you can get a lace piece with padding or no padding, wire or no wires, where the prosthesis slides in like a pillow in a pillowcase.”
Another little known fact: you can receive financial support to help cover the cost of your prosthesis and mastectomy bras. In Ontario, for example, if you have a valid OHIP card, you can receive a grant from the Ministry of Health’s Assistive Devices Program (ADP) to cover those costs. Some private companies also offer coverage; needless to say, it’s important to look into before you go shopping.
Because mastectomy wear is also something that is not often noted in the medical process, it’s important to do your research and find the spaces that can help. That includes ABC, andLook Good, Feel Better (LGFB), a non-profit Canadian organization that offers a range of workshops dedicated to helping cancer survivors “feel like themselves,” providing hair and skincare tips for those living with hair loss, make-up workshops for teens and, of course, breast care workshops for those looking to get fitted (and which can now be held virtually, too).
It all adds up to feeling much, much better after a difficult process. Cancer survivor June Buckle says her “weapon of choice” was stuffing her bras with socks before she found mastectomy wear through ABC.
“My wish is that, for every woman who’s going to go through a mastectomy, she can find places like these that can put her back together,” she says.
“Because when I got fitted for the first time and I walked out of the store with my new bra on, I walked out with my head up high, like I had just won the 100-meter. There’s nothing like it.”
For more information on mastectomy wear or breast cancer, support or to connect with others, visit the Canadian Breast Cancer Network, the Breast Cancer Society of Canada, the Canadian Cancer Survivor Network.