Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. Nearly one in eight face breast cancer in their life.* All of a sudden, your whole life and the lives of your family get turned upside down. And although it may seem improbable, life after breast cancer is beautiful.
Short but radical
After the operation you’re covered in bandages. On your sickbed you get information on prostheses. And two days after the surgery the bandages are removed by a doctor and a specialist breast nurse. At that moment, you get to see the scar for the first time. Three days after the operation, you leave the hospital. And you go home, dressed with a temporary fabric prosthesis and an adjusted bra. Breast cancer patients have a lot to put up with on very short notice.
Listen to your oncologist
And although many hospitals offer good assistance, it sometimes happens that women ask for advice from a specialized lingerie shop before having surgery. Something Bernadette De Masure and daughter Lot from Ohlala Plus, a specialty shop for women with breast prostheses or a breast reconstruction, can relate to. ‘Make sure you feel comfortable and confident with your oncologist, and listen to him,’ says Bernadette, ‘Because before surgery it is very difficult to give an opinion upon so delicate a point since the choice of the prosthesis depends on the type of surgery and how the operation has gone. And you cannot compare two women.’
Patricia David, President of the support group ‘Ontmoeting en Ontspanning met en na Kanker’ and carrier of the BRCA1 cancer gene herself, acknowledges how difficult it is for peers. ‘Suddenly, your whole life and the lives of your family are turned upside down. You are ill, and you get socially isolated. You are no longer valued by society. Moreover, your femininity is taken away. And you have to learn how to come to terms with your scars. And accept that your breast from one moment to the next is no longer there. Others feel shame. Singles ask themselves whether a relationship is still possible. Coming out is also hard. You are constantly thinking people will see the prosthesis.’
Every week, Bernadette receives women with a temporary breast form. So, she knows all too well the fitting of a prosthesis is an emotional process. ‘It is up to us to show what is possible, and to make a woman feel beautiful again. Without having to fear the prosthesis will loosen or move.’
How do we do that? ‘We work together with a regulated surgical bandage dresser (bandagist) specialized in breast forms. We spend at least one hour merely on giving advice on the different types of prostheses since the possibilities are immense. We also have a look at the surgery to see which form would fit best. Because the prosthesis has to resemble the other breast as much as possible. And the person has to feel comfortable while wearing it. That’s why we always ask: how does it feel? How are you feeling? And the prosthesis has to be invisible. An outsider may not see there’s a breast form. So, we use tight white T-shirts with a V-neck so you can see the colour as well as the shape of the prosthesis while wearing a prosthetic bra.
Patricia, spokesperson for women with and after breast cancer, confirms. ‘Wear a tight top and bend over, and look at yourself from the side. It is the only way to see whether the size of the breast form fits well. The bra should fit you snug, and have as little hard stitches as possible. And don’t forget to ask the saleswoman how to slip the prosthesis in your bra, because it is not always obvious.’
‘A prosthetic bra should fit perfectly, ‘ continues Bernadette ‘That’s why a bra often needs adjusting. The types of surgery are different. And after a while, we also regularly see women wearing their old, regular bra again with some adjustments. For instance, we higher the bra bridge a little or we make a few tweaks. We do everything we can so that the woman can wear her favourite bra again. Others feel better in a prosthetic bra. Here too, you have pretty bra sets. For some women, a whole new world opens up. They are so happy, they embrace you. Simply because they thought a beautiful bra was no longer possible.’
The power of optimism
‘Don’t give up, and keep believing in life. Try to enjoy life and be optimistic’, so says Patricia. ‘Look for something that gives you energy. Join a support group. There, you can tell your story and you can count on understanding. Sometimes silly things can happen, like a prosthesis that slips out your old, not adjusted bra when discharging the supermarket trolley. We take care of each other, with a smile and a tear. We’re actually one big group of friends. Here you can be yourself. Not only can you be ill, but you can also show your talent. Once, there was a woman who sat down at the piano and began to play, just like that. That’s something you don’t forget.’
‘Why don’t you come to our aquagym class?’, Patricia asked me. Gladly! And I have met five happy, confident women with a huge sense of humour. I honestly was truly impressed. I even became quiet (what doesn’t happen a lot). I have written down some of their utterances that I absolutely want to share with you. What about ‘Humour keeps you going.’. Or ‘I never doubted I wanted to live.’ Furthermore ‘My partial breast form is my purse.’ ‘I don’t even notice my scar anymore.’ ’My scar is the gateway to life.’ and ‘A robin appeared in the garden. Thereupon my husband said ‘Well, now we have two.’ Or how beautiful life can be with a breast prosthesis or a reconstruction.
Many thanks to Patricia David for the interview and the invitation! And I maybe popping over once more. 🙂 Also a profound thank you to both sisters S. and A., A., E. and L. for speaking candidly and with humour! And finally, thank you to Rosita Cloet from Samen na borstoperatie for all your trouble!
The support group Ontmoeting and Ontspanning met en na Kanker has branches in Roeselare, Waregem, Izegem and the coast. In West-Flanders there is also Samen na borstoperatie and Borst Vooruit. Support groups also exist in other provinces. According to Patricia you also get the best care and support from the hospital psychologists.
*According to information provided by the Breast Clinic of Ghent University Hospital.
This article is a collaboration between LifeStyleTalks and Ohlala Plus from Lendelede.