What to wear post-mastectomy

Dina Rabinovitch

The Guardian:

They call this the fashionable cancer, but nobody’s tackling the basic question — what do you wear?

I’ve been home a week now, and my three-year-old has reloaded the questions arsenal. In my first few days back from hospital he stared at my chest, a startled expression crossing his face. That was it, though; he didn’t comment, or seem troubled. But today launches with, firstly: “I can’t see it (your breast), mummy.” I remember what the child psychology books say about answering children’s questions about sex: answer exactly what your child asks, no more, no less. So, I figure the same rules apply here. “Yes,” I say, “It’s all covered with cream.” Nivea, in fact, to heal the scar. “But it’s flat, mummy, why is it flat?” “It’s flat because the surgeon took away the bump that was making mummy ill.” “But how did he do that, mummy, how did he make it flat?” Elon asks in real wonderment. “It’s flat because the doctor made it flat,” I snap, simultaneously losing both my grip and deeply instilled child-rearing practices.

Never mind, today is going to be fluffy, it will be everything that is not flat, it will be champagne in roof gardens, Cole Porter on speed. I am off to meet Vogue magazine’s Fiona Golfar. With what feels like a crippled right arm, my right side deeply unbecoming shades of raw red, and scar-skin that is so sensitive it even seems to hiss at the Nivea, the only clothes I have been able to wear on my top half are the silk pyjama tops I bought for hospital: I layer one over the other to go outside. So I e-mail Vogue: keepers of the clothing wisdom. Vogue say they will send me a top gun. “When Nicole (Kidman) is in town, Fiona styles her,” is how Golfar is described to me. Meanwhile, the wound has been swelling. Bizarrely, inflating and deflating, on and off. I’m petrified of the condition called lymphodoema, which can affect the arm after lymph node surgery, and would mean losing the use of my right arm. Sister Briodie, the breast care nurse, gives me a piece of genuinely good advice: the trick with the physiotherapy exercises, she says, is not how strenuously you do them, but rather doing little and often. Sister Briodie’s method stops the peculiar on-off swelling, and this, despite all the forbidden actions I take: lifting hefty three-year-olds.

My belief in medical professionals recharged, I even try out the regulation-issue “cumfie” — the foam-filled flabby pink thing you’re supposed to stuff down your bra. But, once you’ve recruited an extra arm to get the bra on — and even forgetting the fairly-recently-weaned three-year-old putting his hand down your front in public — fastening a bra on this beaten-up flesh is grimly uncomfortable. No, this isn’t one the medical establishment can answer. Which is where Vogue comes in. They call this the fashionable cancer, but nobody’s tackling the basic fashion question: what do you wear? Certainly not the skinny breast-cancer awareness T-shirts with round targets on them: T-shirts are out of question for those who cannot lift their arms and moreover have only one breast. As I walk in and settle down, Fiona reaches over and touches the collar of the teal silk pyjama top. “This is nice,” she says, “where’s it from?” “This is it, the pyjama top I keep going on about — the only clothing I can wear at the moment. From Marks and Spencer’s,” I tell her. “Hmmm,” says Vogue’s Fiona Golfar, “I think we’ll try Bond Street.”