Breast cancer is challenging. The treatments are grueling and may include surgery like a lumpectomy (also call BCS or breast conserving surgery) or a mastectomy (full removal of the breast). Both surgeries are invasive and may include the removal of your lymph nodes.
We often see celebrities bounce back to their original appearance quickly after a mastectomy. Stars like Angelina Jolie had preventative surgery since she was BRCA positive and was able to do immediate reconstruction and they were able to conceal the scars. Not everyone has this chance. Women who have had mastectomies due to cancer surgery may have more prominent scarring even after reconstructive surgery. There may also be radiation marks where the skin may be visibly redder on one side. The radiation marks will likely fade over time but some women still experience some skin discolouration long term. The emotions behind these surgeries remain long after Breast Cancer Awareness Month ends.
Anita, a family run company since 1886, creates high-end lingerie and swimwear fashion. Anita designs bras for all women whether or not you have had a mastectomy. They offer you everything for your breast cancer journey including post surgical bras (mastectomy and breast reconstruction), feminine post mastectomy bras, compression garments, breast forms and post mastectomy swimwear. We spoke with Olivia Leroux, Marketing and Sales Director, Anita Canada Ltd. to learn more about the fit and function of these garments.
What bras should a woman who is having a lumpectomy or a mastectomy have before surgery?
Different countries have different rules. In Europe, everything is provided for you. You wake up from surgery wearing the bra. In Canada and the USA, you have to shop for your own bra to wear post surgery. Some surgeons recommend sports bras. The problem is, what qualifies as a sports bra? For some surgeons, it simply means a bra that is high coverage and without seams – like a crop top with compression. Usually, a sports bra has to be pulled over your head, which is very difficult to do after surgery when your movement is limited. They also have low necklines. You need something easy to remove and a bra with front closure is the best for this.
A post surgery bra is very soft. They are not compression bras. After surgery, you will have a bandage that is already providing compression since your incision needs pressure to heal. Post surgery bras are comfortable to wear and have a longer band than a traditional bra which stops right below your breasts. The inside is seamless and breathable. It is all about comfort. Post surgical bras also have pockets to hold the breast form. You will not wear a heavy breast form after surgery. It will be very light and fibre-filled. For ten days you will have the drains (for lymphatic drainage). Then it will take another six weeks for you to fully heal and have a proper bra fitted for your size and to finally wear a regular breast form.
What are the differences between traditional bras, post surgical bras and a mastectomy bras?
Post surgery, you are looking for comfort, not style. You are looking for practicality. With mastectomy lingerie or swimwear, we take lingerie style details like having lace and a defined bra gore [the centre of the bra where the two cups meet]. Some brands do have underwire, but we [Anita] decided not to. We have a lot of experience in moulding our own bras and maintaining a woman’s shape, even in a bigger cup, without the underwire.
Another difference between traditional bras and mastectomy bras is that the post mastectomy bra will have more coverage on the breast, a higher gore and it will always have two pockets – one on each side. That way, the bra will work whether you have had a single breast removed or a double mastectomy. The sides of the bra are also higher to hide the breast form. They look like traditional bras, but have more coverage. You wouldn’t be able to tell mastectomy lingerie apart unless you knew what to look for. The construction of the cup is different. We try to give the illusion of a thinner strap. If you have a bra that you love, you have to understand that the fit is never going to be the same. If you have a higher coverage bra, we can adapt it.
How do you fit a woman for a mastectomy bra?
Fitting a woman for a bra whether they have had a mastectomy or not is pretty much the same. You have the band and you have the cups that you have to fit. If you have had a double mastectomy, the only measurement is the band. I will ask a client what kind of bra they were wearing before their surgery. You can then find a bra that will match both sides and see if she is comfortable in it. It has to fit on her shoulders and work with her silhouette.
If you get fitted before the surgery, it is like any other fitting. You have both breasts and I have a record of what size you were prior to surgery. If you come after the surgery, there are a lot of women who have never been fitted before. They will need to buy a breast form which is available at most lingerie stores, and it is important to see how they fit in the bra.
When we bring a bra to a woman, we don’t want to expose her. She may be uncomfortable with her body and still be in pain. We try to make sure that for the fitting that she has had her drains removed. If she is trying to be fitted for a post surgical bra, the sizing can be small, medium or large so it is easy to give her what she needs as she is healing. We will then tell her to wait until she is fully healed from her surgery for the swelling to decrease to come for the lingerie fitting. This decreases the risk of infection and we will be able to fit her for her proper size.
Going through a mastectomy or lumpectomy is traumatizing for women. What do you do to make the mastectomy bra fitting process more comfortable for them?
First of all, you don’t rush anybody during a fitting for a mastectomy bra. The best practice in the industry is to have an appointment with a store, and that store has dedicated hours for mastectomy fittings because it’s an emotional fitting and you need more privacy. The store will be quieter. Stores that facilitate mastectomy fittings usually have a larger change room where you can sit. You will usually be seeing breast forms – it is not just about buying another piece of fashion. This is your body and you may be emotional the first time that you hold a breast form. You may realize that “this is me now” or it will be until you have breast reconstruction. You need to have the space during the fitting to see everything and the ability to try on everything.
Moving over to bathing suits – tell us what makes mastectomy bathing suits different?
Anita purposefully has the same prints for mastectomy and regular bathing suits. Some women actually prefer the higher coverage that the mastectomy suit provides. A mastectomy suits sits higher to provide more coverage, similar to the lingerie bra. There are pockets on both sides of the suit to hold the breast forms. They also have concealing inserts/padding to cover the nipples (for both mastectomy and non-mastectomy suits).
Shopping for a bathing suit is something that most women don’t love doing. It is especially difficult for women that recently had a mastectomy. How do you get them through the appointment?
Shopping for a bathing suit is one of the most emotional purchases for a woman. You can’t hide under clothes. They are like lingerie that you wear in public. When you buy a bra, you are really focusing on the support of the breast. It’s not about what the rest of your body look like. It’s not about shaping and coverage of your bottom. It’s more about science with a bra. You need to be separated, supported, you need the back to be straight.
With swimwear, you don’t have the exact same sizing. We do bra sized swimwear. For example, if you are a 34C, your bathing suit size will be an 8C. You still have the cup size (the C) and the size 8 is our harmonized size. Harmonized means from the top to the bottom that this is the shape that you should be. For example, if you are a size 8, you should fit a 34C. This is not always the case, which is why we do mix and match sizing is you are buying a tankini or bikini. Tankinis are the number one style in North America. They allow for a perfect fit on the bottom and provides more coverage than a bikini. With any bra sized swimwear, it is important to be fitted. Wear your size and make sure that the breast(s) is supported.
Talk us through picking the right breast form or partial form?
It is based on your surgery. The partials are silicone shells that you fit into your bra, provide balance and balance out tissue loss after a lumpectomy. You can wear a regular bra with a partial – it goes directly onto your skin and then you move them around to fit into your bra. If your bra is well fitted, then the breast form won’t move. If you aren’t wearing the right size, the partial will come out of your bra as you move.
They are adjustable so that you can add surgical fibre to fill up the bra to get to the size that you need. If you are planning on reconstruction, a balloon will be inserted to expand your skin. You can remove the fibre from the partial as the balloon is expanding. You adapt the size to create balance by adding In more or less surgical fibre.
Full breast forms are for complete breast removal and the weight can be the same or similar to your remaining breast. Even weight distribution is important to prevent back issues, for example. Different shapes compensate in your upper and lower arms area. Full breast forms and partials are expensive; therefore, it is important to care for them properly.
How do you care for them?
If it is the partial form with fibre backing, use water and soap that you can buy specifically to clean them. It will be the same soap that you use to clean your lingerie. It is a very gentle soap with a neutral ph. Once they are clean, dab the fibre with a towel. You can let it dry in the box that it comes in. It will dry overnight.
When it is a regular form without the fibre backing, you can use water and gentle soap and then towel dry it.
Anita bras and swimwear can be found in lingerie stores across Canada. To learn more about mastectomy bras and more, visit Anita’s website.