Bras, Bathing Suits and Button-Front Tops: What to Wear After a Mastectomy

How to find the best clothes for comfort and fit post-mastectomy, and what not to wear

Prosthetics and forms
After a woman undergoes a mastectomy to remove one or both breasts, new clothes may be necessary to accommodate a sunken or asymmetrical chest and scars. Step one is to get a prosthesis (or breast form as it's also known). "A prosthesis can give the body balance," says Allison Carney, of the CancerCare support program. "We recommend that women wait six weeks after surgery so any swelling will be down." She recommends meeting with a fitter, who can help you find the right size, since not all prosthetics match traditional bra sizes. Fitters can often be found in hospital boutiques, specialty stores or department stores like Nordstrom. The prostheses are generally made of silicone, resemble the teardrop shape of the breast and come in a variety of shades to match skin tone. Not all insurance companies cover the cost, which ranges from $30 to $400 each. Organizations such as CancerCare offer free prostheses, so be sure to investigate with your doctor or patient coordinator.
Recommendation : Nearly Me Transform Breast Forms, $77 at Herroom.com

Get fitted for a bra
"It's important to have a well-fitting bra to act as a good foundation for style and comfort," says Carney. Mastectomy bras come with pockets that can hold one or two forms, depending on your needs. Consult with a fitter to make sure you buy the right-size bra. "You can also wear your normal bras and put a form in there," says Meeks.
Recommendation: Amoena Naomi Soft Cup Bra, $41 at Nulifemedical.com

Choose a quality camisole
Camisoles are great because they provide a light layer that can hold drains, which are placed near an incision to prevent fluid buildup under your skin post-surgery. "Anyone who has surgery on the torso, whether it's for breasts or a tummy tuck, has to wear drains; you have things coming out of you and they're uncomfortable," says Cathy Meek, breast cancer survivor and founder of Pinxwear.com. "I ordered three camisoles; they were expensive and the quality was cheap." That’s when she started Pinxwear and began designing comfortable, all cotton camisoles that can accommodate drains. After drains are removed, the camisoles are still useful and remain a staple in a mastectomy patient's wardrobe. Many styles have pockets to hold forms and can be worn under clothing to help conceal scars and a concave chest.
Recommendation: Pinxwear Post-Surgical Camisole, $49 at Pinxwear.com

Opt for button-front and slip-on tops
After surgery, it’s often really painful to lift your arms over your head. "You want something with a button front or that you can step into or pull around you," says Meek, whose camisoles are stretchy enough to step into and pull up. Kimberly Ashmand, another survivor who started her own line, designed a bra with both back and front closures. "When you can't lift your arms after surgery, you can close it in the front and then after you heal, you can close it in the back if you prefer," she explains. And they’re sexy too!
Recommendation: Kimberly Ashmand Mastectomy Front Closure Bra, $60 at Kamastectomybras.com

Size up armholes "Sometimes people have scars from where lymph nodes are removed, which is something you may need to adapt your wardrobe to," explains Meek. Post-surgery scars sit below the armpit and can range from a quarter-inch to several inches long. When trying on tops, take a close look at the armholes. Anything too loose may make you feel uncomfortable if it exposes scarring. "If the armholes are large, wear a bandeau top or tank top underneath," advises Meek.
Recommendation: Annette Bandeau Top, $31at Barenecessitie.com

Try a tankini
Mastectomy swimwear has come a long way. "The most popular swimsuit style is the tankini,” says Theresa McLeod, boutique manager at the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center in New York City. “When you wear a one-piece suit, every time you have to take it down to go the bathroom, the breast is going with the swimsuit." Davis adds that, "There are suits that are higher in the neckline and under the arm to allow a woman to wear them comfortably and still look fashionable." To find more fashion-forward styles than some of the purely functional options out there, they recommend Lands' End and Veronica Brett.

Opt for light, comfortable sleepwear
"In years past, women either had to sleep in their bras or be one-sided," says Davis. "Now there are many options ... including a pocketed camisole that can be worn with a pajama bottom. The camisole allows a woman to wear her breast prosthesis comfortably at night without having to wear a bra 24 hours a day." Meek makes a lightweight nightie that you can step into (for right after surgery). She stresses that paper-thin cotton is essential: "You can be very hot in the evening and perspire a lot," she says.
Recommendation: Pinxwear Pure Cotton Nightie, $57 at Pinxwear.com

Go for higher necklines and bold prints
After a mastectomy, the chest often looks concave and may have scarring, which can make you feel self-conscious. Depending on how much tissue was removed from the chest, your ribs may even be visible. "Low necklines, halter tops and other very round necklines can present a problem," says mastectomy fitter Beth Davis of Ruston, LA. After her surgery, Meek wore higher necklines, like crewnecks, and buttoned her blouses a bit higher to prevent gaping. She also suggest wearing a print. "A pattern is more distracting," she says. Basic black is also a good option for disguising asymmetry, adds Ashmand.

Pick natural fabrics
Choosing natural fabrics has two benefits. First, they allow the skin to breathe. "A lot of people who go through chemo have hot flashes so you need something breathable," says Meek. Always opt for cotton, wool and silk over a synthetic fabric such as polyester, which can promote sweating. The second benefit of a lightweight, natural fiber is that it’s easier on the skin. "When the mastectomy is new, don't wear anything too binding or irritating," adds Carney.

Wear the right accessories
It's a common trick in fashion: If you want to attract attention to an area -- and away from another -- add something colorful or dramatic where you want eyes to focus. Meek recommends wearing things near the collar: "For necklaces, you don't want them to fall mid-chest; you want them up higher, closer to the neck. If you have a scarf tied around your neck, that helps a lot, too." Chokers are popular this season, so what better time to wear a statement piece that will draw attention upward?

What not to wear
Steer clear of pocketed tops and bras that have Velcro, "which are hideous and uncomfortable," says Meeker. Ashmand avoids wearing white: "When you buy a prosthesis, there is a nipple on them and if the sides don't match, you can see that through the white." Davis adds that backless tops and dresses can also pose a problem. "Breast prostheses are traditionally worn in the pocket of a bra, therefore any clothing that has to be worn bra-less can present a challenge." While there are backless bras with side adhesives to hold you in place, they can be hard to wear for women with large breasts. If you're prone to sweating, the adhesive becomes less effective. On the bright side, fashion has come a long way and women who’ve undergone mastectomies have more choices than ever. "Feeling like themselves [again] gives them the confidence to go back in the world," says Carney.

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