Written by Pamela Appea
Whether it’s your first-time undergoing breast or chest surgery or you have been through several surgeries over the years, finding bras that fit and provide the right amount of comfort and support can feel challenging after surgery. For those who have only recently heard the unwelcome news of a first-time breast cancer diagnosis, it is easy to feel overwhelmed when it comes to figuring out what kind of bras you need. This article aims to give you information on something that many feel we ‘should’ already be experts on—bras. Don’t worry, it’s okay not to know everything.
This piece aims to serve as a guide for bras after undergoing any breast or chest surgeries, including mastectomy, implant surgery, augmentation and/or breast lifts. Never hesitate to ask for help or information, with the goal of being flexible— yet prepared— in the journey ahead. Understand that as your body heals, your bra size may change more than once. In the instance of women who are having a mastectomy, then breast implants and perhaps additional surgeries, it may feel frustrating since everyone’s body changes following any major medical procedure. Following your 6-weeks post-surgical recovery, if you have any significant weight fluctuations (up or down) that may mean that you now have yet another different bra size. (Take a deep breath, we’re going to get through this together!)
Bra 101: The Lifespan of a Bra
The truth of the matter is that bras are only going to last so long. Some experts say a bra’s lifespan is shockingly only 9-12 months long.
The first thing bra or bralette customers must understand is that all bras—from lace to cotton to sports or athleisure wear—none are made to last beyond a few years.
Sure, you can wear them but loose or ill-fitting bras don’t often provide support especially if you are leading an active lifestyle. And let's face it: when it comes to the shapeless favorite cotton sports bra, it’s probably not doing us any favors. We may get attached to the comfortable bra and not want to throw it out, but it might be worth it to consider doing a bra purge around 2-3 months after your surgery.
Bra 101: Best Practice Bra Care
According to Elisabeth Dale, author of The Bra Zone: How to Find Your Ideal Size, Style and Support, many women don’t know or don’t consistently practice best practice bra care. First, pop quiz. How often should you wash your bra? According to Dale, “it depends.” When it comes to your sweaty sports bra, they should go in the wash immediately. Ditto for any bra that has post-surgical fluids or when you are in nursing mode.
“It’s best to wear a bra for a day, or maybe two consecutive days and then switch to a different bra,” she said. Dale went on to note, “The average woman owns nine bras, but only wears six of them.” This factoid is significant because many women don’t have enough bras to rotate. Then they end up overusing their bras—making the life of their favorite bras shorter.
According to Dale, best practice is always hand washing bras and hanging to dry—definitely not a popular option for many women, especially in the weeks and months after surgery. If you absolutely have to wash your bras in a washing machine, Dale recommends putting your bras in a dedicated bra mesh laundry bag, fastening all the hooks, while using a cool water temperature and very mild detergent.
What to Know About Your Bra Before Surgery
Wear loose, comfortable clothing that is easy to take on and off clothing prior to your surgery. Avoid clothing, bras, and intimate apparel with intricate hooks, belts, buckles, buttons, zippers etc. Right before surgery, consider giving all clothing, essentials and valuables to the person who will be picking you up and accompanying you home from your surgery when you wake up from your anesthesia.
What to Expect After Surgery
Most hospitals and surgical centers will automatically give you a bra following mastectomy and/or implant surgery—in fact, you will wake up from anesthesia with your post-surgical bra already on. Many hospital post-surgical bras are adjustable Velcro and/or are front-closing making it as easy as possible to get in and out of your bra. The Elizabeth Pink Surgical Bra® bra is what I received during my most recent surgery. It’s functional and comfortable, especially for when you are navigating drains. The quality of many post-surgical bras has dramatically improved in recent years. Masthead Pink was founded by a physician, Dr. Elizabeth Chabner Thompson, MD, MPH, who actually experienced breast cancer herself since she had been dissatisfied with her post-surgical bra options.
For women who are home-bound in the weeks following surgery, understand that your bra needs will change from day to day and week to week. Some women want as much compression and chest support in their bra collection, while others want loose non-form-fitting tops or no bra at all. Some women want a special garment that includes a pocket for drains. Do what is most comfortable for you.
Post-Surgical Care and Bra Considerations
Feel free to ask questions before and after your surgery. Make sure your caretaker is around for the after surgical care bra specific questions, reach out to hospital and/or social work staff, even if it’s via phone or email. Ask questions like:
Following surgery, at what point can I change my bra? Note: In the days and weeks post surgery, you will definitely need assistance taking on and off your bras, tops, inserts etc.
Following surgery, when can I safely shower? Many doctors will give you clearance for a shower—not a bath—within 24-48 hours. Note: have a caretaker nearby to help you get in and out of the shower and assist in getting dressed. Most medical professionals do advise against baths, swimming, immersing your body in water, until six weeks after any breast/chest surgery.
What is the best way to take care of the surgery site (dressings, replacing gauze etc?) How often should I empty drains?
- What kinds of bras, breast prosthesis and cloth-based bra inserts are covered by my medical insurance?
MYTH BUSTER- You do not need to wear a garbage bag or rain poncho in the shower for several weeks. For those who have literally just undergone surgery and have no range of motion, getting any outfit on or off might take all your remaining energy, so just skip the garbage bag-shower idea!
Do I Have to Buy New Bras?
In the days and weeks after surgery, keep the old loose bralettes or comfortable classic bras in your dresser—for now. Definitely you should keep your comfortable bras for the short-term, before doing any purge. If you happen to already have any comfortable adjustable bras (breathable soft fabrics are best), even if they are not exactly your size anymore, they might work in a pinch.
Do not rush out to spend hundreds of dollars or more on multiple untested or unknown bra brands in the early weeks. Buy a few post-surgical mastectomy bras that seem promising and once you see they work for you, then consider investing and expanding your bra collection later down the road.
In short, yes, you will have to buy new bras, depending on where you are in your health and wellness journey. If you have any bras with underwire or lace, those bras should definitely be put to the side until after you’ve healed.
Online or Virtual Bra Fittings
Online or virtual bra fittings may be a hit or miss experience for women. Some of the links below can let you know what your starting point is once you plug in your personalized bra measurement numbers. You should not feel pressured to purchase untested bras during or after any online or virtual bra fitting service. Think of the online or virtual bra fitting to be the start of information gathering—not the be all and end all. From there, using the information gathered, you can start shopping online or consider in-person shopping.
Note: Anytime you are shopping online, look for companies that specialize in post-mastectomy or chest surgery bras and have lots of options. If a store or online shop has only one “mastectomy” bra option or a one-size-fits all mastectomy bra, it’s probably best to steer clear. Be sure to also check out the online store’s return, exchange, and store credit policies, especially if you are shopping at international online e-commerce websites.
Many women consider an individualized in-person bra fitting to be a must. In-person bra fittings are not going to be an option until you are fully healed from your surgery. If your weight fluctuates more than 15-20 pounds in the weeks and months after surgery, then you may have to re-measure your bra size again. Be aware that your body and bra size needs may not be constant.
Six Weeks Post Surgery… How Can I Figure Out My (New) Bra Size?
Clearly, having breast surgery and/or getting breast implants means you may have a transitional period while you are recovering. Some women use specialty post-surgical bras, while others wear bralettes (a lightweight bra that does not have underwire.)
After the surgery, when you are fully able to take on and off your bra without assistance and the swelling has gone down significantly, it is time to measure your new bra size.
Use a soft tape measure to calculate your under-breast measurements. Stand in a natural pose making sure you do not suck in your stomach. It’s best to measure first without a bra and then with a bra and compare the numbers.
Put the tape measure around you and document the “underbust” number you get.
Then measure around the fullest and widest part of your breast or chest area where you had surgery. Document your “overbust” area.
If you are purchasing any lingerie or full-body garment, then naturally you should measure your waist and hips as well.
For all women, it is good to keep in mind that your bra size will never remain the same. If you were one size at age 25, you most likely will be a different size at age 45, including for women who have not gone through breast or chest surgeries. So with any woman with multiple breast or chest surgeries under your belt, you must be prepared for the possibility of your bra size changing.
What About Breast Prosthesis?
Silicone or other ‘hard’ breast prosthesis don’t work for me on a personal level, since I have a silicone sensitivity and have strong opinions about the health risks of silicone prosthesis. With that said, many insurance companies do cover breast prosthetics, so definitely speak to your medical team about any special custom orders if you decide to try and see if breast prosthetics works for you.
What About Bra Inserts?
Some cloth-based bra inserts may feel unbearably uncomfortable in the immediate weeks after your surgery. So, skip them until your incision wounds are fully healed. While cloth-and fabric-based inserts are usually pretty affordable, check with your medical team again to see if anything is covered under your health insurance. Just like bras, cloth inserts have a definite short lifespan and you will most likely need to purchase or order them online on a regular basis. Try soft organic and bamboo nursing bra inserts for the short-term and make sure that your bra has enough room to accommodate the inserts.
Recommended and Popular Bras Available Online
You may need different bras depending on where you are in the recovery process. Here are a few of our favorite post-surgical bras.