Susan Gubar’s column, Living With Cancer, recently addressed the challenges of finding clothes to accommodate a body altered by cancer surgery and treatment.
“Every time doctors reshaped my anatomy, I found myself flummoxed in my closet,” she wrote. “I was confounded about attire, so I resorted to sweatpants and rarely left the house.”
We asked readers to tell us about their own solutions. We’ve gathered some of the responses here, lightly edited.
Kerry Kinsella, 43, Port Richey, Fla.
This article comes at a time when I am having near daily (but swift) meltdowns trying to find clothes to wear, especially to the office. And honestly, I thought it was just me. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2017, having since completed chemotherapy, mastectomy, radiation, targeted therapy, ongoing hormonal therapy and recently another mastectomy and reconstruction.
I remember specifically my breast surgeon saying, “Treatment will take around nine months. You know, it’s like being pregnant.” Having never been pregnant, no, I don’t know.
Twenty-two months later and another surgery on the horizon, it’s difficult to recognize the person in the mirror, and even more difficult trying to fit into the clothes in the closet. The latest surgery has completely altered my shape and nothing fits.
So right now I wear the same leggings and elastic-waist shorts over and over for comfort around the abdomen. I try to focus on the shirts I have that fit, and last week I bagged up every shirt/top that was a size smaller and gave them to the neighbors’ daughters (they were extremely appreciative, so there’s a silver lining there). I exercise and eat well, and am exercising more lately to help with the emotional roller coaster of this journey. All I’m told is to give it time.
MJW, 71, Vero Beach, Fla.
I was diagnosed with metastatic stage III lung cancer two years ago and started treatment. Since then I have had to make many adaptive clothing changes. I can no longer wear shoes because of the swelling of my feet and ankles. I’ve only worn one pair of sandals all this time.
I had radiation through my back, my bones became brittle and I had two vertebrae fractures. Because of that I can no longer wear a bra at all, but after a year of wearing nothing under my clothes or just an undershirt, I discovered camisoles. The are stretchy, which makes them easier to get on, and they support my back quite a bit.
I had to wear a back brace for over a year and finally got some loose tank shirts that would fit over the brace. Now, the medication I am on causes extreme hot sweats throughout the day and night and I can no longer wear anything tight, so I discovered little lightweight swing dresses on Zulily, and they are great, especially the ones with pockets. Yesterday, during the infusion I noticed how well one of those little dresses worked to be able to access the chemo port. The neck stretches easily but bounces back when the IV comes out. Great!
I have to wear compression stockings because of the edema and as of now cannot even wear leggings or any kind of pants. I live in Florida where it is especially hot and humid in the summer, so maybe this will get better in the winter. The stockings don’t look very good, but I’ve decided to change my attitude about that and say they are chic. The little dresses over the stockings look fine.
And by the way, I am now cancer-free — or No Evidence of Disease, as they say — so that is great. But I am still in treatment and still have side effects and will probably have to make more adaptive clothing choices.
Miko Hargett, 43, Las Vegas
I am too much for convenience to go through the trouble of hiding things, but at times put on the wig and dressed up like I wasn’t sick so I didn’t have to talk about it much. Mostly for three-plus years I went into comfy mode and played with scarves and slippers. Layers of complementary (or not — LOL) clothes and colors insulated me from changing temps (I still often wear leggings under short dresses), but I keep thinking of designs that might provide a gentle, elegant, practical comfort through this extremely challenging experience.
Laura-Lee Fineman Karp, 73, Seattle
I lost my right breast to cancer and absolutely hated the available “mastectomy bras.” Fortunately I found a brand of regular bras made by Coobie. It’s quite easy to insert a prosthesis (either one or two, as needed) into Coobies. They come in lots of colors, with or without lace trimming, and they are comfortable. They need to be pulled on over the head, which stops seeming weird after a while. Also, I bought a couple of pairs of loose linen pants at Chico’s. They had an elastic waist and patch pockets on the back. As they were kind of shapeless, they looked fine when worn backward. Doing this put the pockets in the front, a more convenient place for a drainage bag. Topping this with a long loose blouse gave me comfort; I looked fine and nobody was the wiser.
Janet Bertinot, 66, Burlington, Ky.
I live in baggy cotton knit. My port is just under my collar bone, and my chemo outfit a cotton sleeveless top worn under a two-sizes-too-big zippered hoodie. I can pull the hood up to sleep.
Beth Horikawa, 67, Madison, Wis.
My issue is minor. Fourteen years ago, at 53, I had a hysterectomy and bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy for uterine cancer. My gynecological oncologist wanted to make a small horizontal incision, but when he found a mess (and I mean mess!) of large fibroids, he had to make a vertical incision that started two inches above my belly button and stretched to an inch below the beginning of my pubic area. It divided my abdomen in half, and since then the left half holds more fat than the right half. I have invested in an extensive wardrobe of leotards that serve as my underwear. To a certain degree, they smooth out the area, but not completely. When I look at myself naked in the mirror, all I can do is laugh. It looks so silly!
Frankly, since I am alive 14 years later and it is merely cosmetic, I don’t have anything to complain about. I have named one half of my abdomen Dr. K. and the other half Dr. B., in honor of my gynecological oncologist and radiation oncologist. They saved my life.
We also heard from the founders of two companies that aim to help meet patients’ needs.
Lisa Lurie, 59, co-founder of Cancer Be Glammed, Pittsburgh
I am a breast cancer survivor who underwent a double mastectomy without reconstruction, an oophorectomy and chemotherapy. Like Susan and most women, I was totally unprepared for the disfiguring, physical side effects of surgery and treatment and their emotional blow to my body-image and self-esteem. In a very short period of time I became bald, breast-less and bloated from steroids. It was soul destroying.
When my treatment ended, I became determined to help other women facing all forms of cancer to have a better informed, practical-yet-fashionable, empowered recovery. I co-founded a company, Cancer Be Glammed, which prepares women ahead of time for the visible side effects of surgery and treatment and provides recovery products and lifestyle solutions.
Our website, cancerbeglammed.com, features a Shopping Directory linking to clothing and products that are designed for post-surgery and treatment. In addition we have a large community of survivors who blog and share their recovery wisdom and advice.
Bimla Picot, chief executive and founder of Reboundwear, New York, N.Y.
In just one year, I experienced life after surgery with my children, friends and parents. I watched the painful process of my loved ones struggling to get dressed and go to physical therapy. The issues weren’t limited to post-surgery patients. For the elderly and people with chronic illnesses, getting dressed every day is a struggle.
The last straw was when I was caring for my best friend after her double mastectomy. When she was unable to move her arms, she was required to undress several times a day to have her drains emptied. Dressing and undressing literally added insult to injury.
I created Reboundwear, a universal dressing solution for the over 40 million Americans who struggle with this simple daily task.
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