What to Wear After Having Breast Cancer Surgery

NEW YORK – While planning for breast reconstruction surgery, many women wonder about what they should wear during the recovery period. In the first weeks home, you may want to avoid tight-fitting, restrictive clothing and anything that requires you to lift your arms over your head. Clothes should be loose and comfortable and they should slip on easily and close in the front with zippers or buttons.

“After surgery, both physical and emotional factors determine how well and quickly a woman will heal,” says plastic surgeon and breast reconstruction specialist Dr. Constance M. Chen. “Small things, like being able to get in and out of clothes easily, can ease recovery. Also, women should know in advance that they may leave the hospital with surgical drains in place and they will need to know how to manage the drains and accommodate them in their clothing as they resume daily activities. Knowledge and some planning can pave the way to a smooth recovery.”

“One or more surgical drains are usually required following mastectomy and reconstructive surgery,” says Dr. Chen. “The body doesn’t like empty spaces and will fill any area that has a potential space with fluid, which prevents the tissues from healing if not drained.” The drain is a flexible tube that connects from the surgical wound to a plastic bulb that collects the fluid, which is then periodically measured and emptied. Most people will keep the bulbs hanging on attachments on their surgical bra. Usually, patients go home with drains in place, and they are removed later in the doctor’s office. Your nurse or doctor will instruct you on how to manage the drains at home but it will take a little practice to learn the best way to keep the tubes and bulbs secure and discreet. If you want to Heal With Style, specialty companies such as Eileen + Eva make elegant postsurgical garments such as cardigans, wraps, and shawls with pockets for drains.

One item that many women find useful is a post-surgical camisole, which is a specially designed sleeveless tank top that provides needed support and may come in stylish colors and with lace trim. These garments are made of soft, stretchy, lightweight fabric and sometimes come with pockets that securely hold surgical drains in place and that can be detached after drains are removed. Some camisoles can be pulled up over the hips to avoid movement of the arms and shoulders. The needs of women who have had different types of breast cancer surgery differ. Lumpectomy, unilateral or bilateral mastectomy, breast reconstruction with implants or their own tissue, all leave women with unique requirements for recovery, particularly in choosing a bra. Nevertheless, they face the common challenge of finding comfortable and appropriate clothing.

“Depending on what kind of surgery you had, your surgeon will talk to you about whether and when to wear a bra and what to look for,” says Dr. Chen, “but there are overall guidelines for post-surgical bras.” Some patients may be advised to wear a specialized bra that has attachments for drains for several weeks after surgery. When ready for a regular bra post-surgery, you can ensure your comfort by following these suggestions: Look for a bra made of soft, breathable fabric that is seamless or has flat seams to avoid irritation. Avoid underwire bras – especially while healing. Wide bands under the breasts ensure that the bra will stay in place and not dig into sensitive skin. A front-closing bra is a good idea, as you may have trouble reaching hooks in the back or pulling a bra over your head. The bra should not be so tight that it leaves marks when taken off.

Many cities and towns have boutiques that specialize in clothing and other items likes wigs and prostheses for breast cancer patients. Staff in these stores are often survivors themselves or are specially trained in fitting and working with women undergoing breast cancer treatment. What to wear may seem like an unimportant concern for a woman before surgery, but it can be helpful to plan for comfort after surgery and to think about what is important in terms of appearance and sense of self. When it’s time to think about getting dressed, the clothes in your closet may not all work. Not only is your body different than it was before surgery but it will continue to change for some time. Whether you choose clothes designed for post-surgical wear or are able to find items in your own wardrobe or in regular shops that work for you, remember that the way you present yourself to the world is an important part of who your are and part of the process of putting cancer behind you.

Constance M. Chen, MD, is a board-certified plastic surgeon with special expertise in the use of innovative natural techniques to optimize medical and cosmetic outcomes for women undergoing breast reconstruction. She is Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery (Plastic Surgery) at Weill Cornell Medical College and Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery (Plastic Surgery) at Tulane University School of Medicine. www.constancechenmd.com

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