Breast cancer lesson 135: Why I won’t be binning my bras just yet!

Breast cancer surgery does present most women with a bust-sized dilemma. Can I – and should I – get back to wearing the bras I lovingly selected for myself before cancer stole my boob? The answer, it seems, like a lot of other cancer-related questions, is that there are no hard and fast rules.  

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Having had DIEP surgery, it seems surgeons, breast nurses and patients alike all agree that you should steer away from under-wired bras for a good six months after the operation. This I have done – in fact I can’t stop wearing my post-surgery bra in bed, which I was allowed to remove at night after six weeks!

What happens after six months, however (a marker I am about to hit), is the subject of much debate. Being a big fan of my underwear drawer, I was delighted to hear from both my plastic surgeon and a fellow survivor that, in their view, the question is not whether or not you should wear under-wired bras, but more whether wearing under-wired bras is actually comfortable. In fact, the best piece of advice I received was from an event speaker who suggested you try on everything in your underwear drawer before deciding to burn the contents (with Suzie the wig in tow, it would make an impressive fire though).

The fact my bras may get a stay of execution makes me very happy for a number of reasons. Firstly, if you’ve actually had the joy of scouring the racks in a department store for something without a wire, you’ll discover it’s not really a joy at all. The selection is limited (think 20 racks of wired to 1 rack of non-wired and you’ll get the picture) and it seems you are suddenly categorised alongside breastfeeding mothers and teenage starter bras, which is not particularly sexy for a lifetime choice. Building up a new collection is not something I fancy doing overnight either, especially when I have a tummy fat-filled new boob, which has a tendency to grow when it feels like it (if you’ve been following the blog you will know that the fat never actually forgets its origins and can grow considerably if you put on weight).

Of course, with the help of Google, I have found a few non-wired bras that make me feel my age (and feminine as well, which is a bonus). M&S, Gap and Fig Leaves have been my shops of choice and I am delighted to have found some that are navy and pink (rather than simply beige, beige, white and more beige). Amoena also has some nice styles, which I may try if the post-surgery bra fashion parade doesn’t go according to plan. My advice is definitely to try out some different non-wired styles in the months following surgery (for morale more than anything else) and avoid the stores (mail order is much more satisfying and you don’t risk dragging yourself round the shops to find the only one you like isn’t available in your size).

If the under-wired option does prove to be a little uncomfortable, I do have a few back-up plans. Firstly, I am attending a meeting with a bra manufacturer one evening in September to discuss wearer trials for some post-surgery bras (that don’t make you feel like you’re either 70 or 12). Secondly, I have signed up to a lingerie evening with Breast Cancer Care in October to get a proper fitting (let’s hope new boobie plays ball) and some tips on choosing right bra for your body shape. They are held across the country and come highly recommended for those looking for a bit of comfort and style! 

I will let you know how I get on when I can extract myself from the comfort of my post-surgery bra. It may take a while, given I have to minimise friction while going through radiotherapy (am just hoping I can run and wear clothes for that period at the moment).

As a quick aside, for those of you worried about whether or not there is a link between the type of bra you wear and breast cancer, please do not despair. There is a great piece by Cancer Research UK (click here to read), which explains that there is no scientific evidence to link the two. It appears that some people believe under wired bras can have a negative effect on the lymphatic system (causing toxins to build up in the breast area). Cancer Research UK explains that your bra would have to be unbearably tight to start to have any impact at all.

The underwear drawer is safe for now – and long may it remain so!

Breast cancer lesson number 72: Set your boobs free!

Nine weeks ago today I was on the slab being separated from my cancer. Nine weeks on and I have been celebrating in a small, but meaningful way. Firstly (and not really related but worth a mention) by not vomiting for 24 hours straight thanks to the anti-nausea medication. And, secondly, by sleeping without my post-surgery bra for the first time.

Going ‘au naturel’ or braless in bed is another of those cancer milestones that doesn’t often get a look in, surrounded as it is chemo sickness stories and hairless updates. But, as a step towards the new ‘post-active-treatment’ normal to which I am heading, it feels like another great big tick on the cancer checklist.

My post-surgery bra and I have had some good times together. It may have aged me in the bra department by a good 30 years, but with its healing fibres and its soft fabric, it has been a loyal friend. So much so, that I could have stopped wearing it in bed a few weeks back, but chose to extend our relationship just that little bit longer. I have purposely chosen not to post it here so as not to scare off the male followers among you.

Before you question my hygiene levels, I did have two identical post-surgery bras (best to go up a back size when choosing just to give you added comfort around the swelling). I am delighted to report that they are now both in a drawer, replaced with a new non-wired bra for the daytime (another mini milestone). A good three months without wire is the recommendation and then I get to take a call on whether to return back to the underwired bras of my pre-cancer life, or opt for a lifetime of comfort. As someone who only wears heels on special occasions (and is known to walk like I’m drunk before I’ve had a drop when I do due to my rather special hips) it might be comfort all the way from now on. Last thing I want is a bit of wire digging into my new fat-filled boobie.

It will be a while before I get a nipple and any final nips and tucks. I will have a fleshy mound for a good six months post radiotherapy, so the tissue and skin have time to settle down. I should be seeing my surgeon again in a few months, however, to discuss these little reconstruction extras and, most importantly, get me added to the waiting list for day surgery next year. When your life is no longer dependent on surgery, the NHS waiting list system comes back into play. I wonder just how many nipple-less woman are currently waiting their turn for a manipulated bit of skin and a pinky tattoo?

So, to all reconstruction ladies out there I say, love your post-surgery bra (and pick wisely – I highly recommend my Royce one), but also love the day it comes off. It means you’re one step further away from the ‘patient’ label and one step closer to those post-cancer comforts.

As a side point, if anyone knows of any beautiful and comfortable non-wired bras, please do get in touch. They seem a little hard to find. 

Breast cancer lesson number ten: There is such a thing as a cancer survival kit

Aristotle was a clever chap. In one of his works On The Heavens, he said: ‘it is not once nor twice but times without number that the same ideas make their appearance in the world’. Basically, if you think you’re being original, think again.

Every day, someone is taken into a room and told they have cancer. Every day, someone starts out on a journey, looking for their own ways to find strength and keep fighting. Every day, someone learns a practical tip that is new to them, but that has been discovered thousands of times before by other inspiring people determined to tackle this frightening disease head on. So, today, I want to share a few of the tips that have already made an appearance in my cancer story, so that you – or someone close to you – can get a bit of a headstart.

If every cancer sufferer were able to pass on just one tip to those newly diagnosed, there would be a few more smiles in those hospital waiting rooms. That’s my aim. I am a great believer of strength in numbers. Together, we may not be able to stop cancer affecting our loved ones (I think the experts are doing an amazing job of that). But, by sharing our knowledge, we can make the journey a much more comfortable and bearable one. Happiness is infectious, so help me start a pandemic!

The day after diagnosis day, I made a decision. I didn’t want pity. I didn’t want sympathy (although hugs are lovely). I wanted tips – and lots of them. Since then, I have been inundated with thoughtful messages. In just a few weeks, I have been inducted in the benefits of acupuncture, emotional freedom therapy, life coaching, mindfulness and massage. I have accepted every offer of help (NLP next week) and I feel great – in fact better than ever.

So, here’s the first installment of my cancer survival kit. One small caveat. This is not a substitute for a patient checklist and you may disagree with some of the below. This is me, just trying to be helpful and pass on the kindness of others. Don’t worry, I’m not on commission!

Work out what sends you to sleep now: ok, so this isn’t rocket science, but after having had an irrational fear of dying for the first five days after being diagnosed, I realised quite quickly that, without sleep, I was pretty useless. So here’s a quick tip for you. There are loads of apps and CDs out there to help you sleep, so start experimenting. I have already tried Patrick Browning’s apps as well as a great disk from a psychotherapist friend. I love lying in bed, focusing on different parts of my body, tensing them and releasing them (it feels like they are sinking into the mattress when you let go). Even if you can sleep now, it pays to be prepared.

Talking pillows are great: so listening in bed with headphones on is not great. I went to bed the other day, drifted off and was then jolted awake by a loud piece of music. That’s where a Sound Asleep pillow comes in. It’s a speaker, it’s a pillow, it’s a revelation. In short, it means I can drift off to sound of peaceful chants without Duncan hearing a word. A thoughtful gift from a thoughtful friend.

Protect that boob: I was amazed when a friend at work presented me with what looked like an oversized jelly bean. It was, in fact, a Tender Cush pillow to help me feel comfortable at night and sleep on my side post surgery. Of course, I haven’t put it to work yet, but it is so soft and should be pretty handy.

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Post-surgery bras aren’t just for those with a breast prosthesis: best get a specific recommendation from your breast care nurse, but I wouldn’t have known to ask if some kind soul hadn’t pointed it out. I went to Royce (shop online as the experience of shopping for post-surgery bras on the high street is quite disheartening) for mine and was quite taken with one that says it has healing fibres. I have heard that underwires may be out forever for those who have had reconstruction. Is that true? Can anyone confirm or deny? And remember no VAT to be paid on these beauties!

Buy big knickers: a DIEP surgery recommendation (as discussed in lesson x). They’re really big, they hold it all in. Let’s move on… No photographic evidence required.

Don’t forget to accessorise: I must confess, a bag for carrying around one of my four drains didn’t even feature in my initial hospital kit list. It was only when a friend asked me about them – and I then saw a lady in the hospital carrying one – that it got a look in. Imagine my delight when two handmade bags arrived through the post yesterday from a wonderful friend. The only trouble is, they are far too beautiful to waste on a drain!

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Lip balm and wet wipes are an in-patient’s best friend‏: standard stuff, worth remembering. Bit like preparing for a camping trip – just a lot less fun. No scent, no sting!

Power up: one worry I have is keeping my mobile phone charged when going in hospital. With my right arm compromised due to the lymph node clearance, I think turning around to plug in a charger might be a bit too energetic. Fear not, there are some pretty great external power packs on the market that will charge your phone many times over from the comfort of your bed. Mine has so many different phone and device connectors I reckon I could power the ward!

Reevaluate your wardrobe: apart from my coat and the odd shirt, most of my clothes involve some sort of body contortion when dressing. That’s why I’ve spent the last few weeks stocking up on new navy and pink items to help me feel nice – and not naked. If it zips up or buttons down, it’s in. I have also replenished my stocks of tracksuit bottoms, given most of mine are covered in paint from decorating last year. Not sure the nurses would approve of those.

Don’t be afraid to ask: whether it’s from a breast nurse, amazing charities, such as Breast Cancer Care and Macmillan or fellow patients, ask away! There are superb booklets on offer covering everything from fertility and chemotherapy to specific types of drugs. Macmillan also produce a great Feel More Like You booklet. You can order them online, so keep donating, so they can keep producing and posting them!

Ok, so this is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start (there are plenty more, but don’t want to blow your mind too early on). Plus, I didn’t think it would be right to talk about health foods, when I am currently feeding my new boob (AKA the tummy) a lot of unhealthy things. Read it, share it and please add tips here if you want to pass on your great advice.

This my little way of giving back, before I get started. Thank you to all those who have contributed to the cancer survival kit so far. Let’s hope it keeps on growing.

Every cancer journey is different. But, chances are, someone out there has a tip to help reassure you it’s all going to be ok.