Sophie Cullinane | Features Editor | Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Nursing Bras, Chicken Fillets and A Sea of Beige: The Complications of Bra Shopping When You’ve Had Breast Cancer

The Debrief: Grace Harrold, 28, thought all of the harrowing memories of battling cancer would be over once she had a lumpectomy, but that was until she had to deal with saying goodbye to her precious lingerie collection…

As someone who has spent the vast majority of their adult life leading with their boobs, discovering I needed to have part of one removed wasn’t just a horrifying shock, it kind of tore my world apart. I was the type of person who picked an outfit from the chest down, accentuating 32C cups with plunging v-necks and expensive Agent Provocateur lingerie. It sounds really vain, but the truth is that boobs were kind of ‘my thing’ - I have short, stubby legs and I hate my hips - so what the hell was I supposed to do now that a life-threatening illness was about to rob me of them?

I found out I had breast cancer a few weeks after my 26th birthday. The guy I was seeing - who happened to be training to be a doctor - noticed as small, pea-sized lump in my breast whilst he was drunkenly feeling me up on my best friend’s sofa and insisted I go and have it checked out. 

When I went to my GP and she examined me and took a sample of cells from my breast for testing, she discovered I had early stage one breast cancer. To treat it, I would have to have a course of radiotherapy as well as a partial mastectomy (a lumpectomy) which would remove the cancerous cells in my breast and some of the tissue surrounding them. I was lucky, she told me, because not only had I caught the cancer early, I’d also be able to keep most of my breast including the nipple and wouldn’t have to go through the trauma of losing my hair because I didn’t need chemotherapy. The downside was the surgery would likely make both my breast size and texture uneven and I would have to wait a minimum of six months to get reconstructive surgery to make both breasts look, if not the same, then at least a bit more similar. 

I wasn’t going to die, but I couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling like the cancer was mutilating my body from the inside out and for weeks I cried wondering what the hell I had done to deserve this. Yes, the operation was going to save my life, but I was terrified it was going to make me a monster that no one would want to sleep with in the process.

When I was discharged from hospital after my lumpectomy, it took me over two weeks to build up the courage to remove my surgical compression bra and see what was left of the part of my body that I’d always been most proud of. If my friends hadn’t been with me, I don’t know what I would have done. I texted my best friend and told her and, within the next two hours, they’d all made plans to come over my house the next day with wine and takeaway to try and deal with this all together, as a group. 

Everyone had met up previously and decided that they were going to take off their bras with me at the same time in a kind of solidarity. At first I thought they were mental, but they all calmly explained that they were doing this to be supportive to me and to make sure I didn’t have to see anything shocking alone. We all poured ourselves a glass of wine, went up to the bathroom and took a collective deep breath. I looked in the mirror and didn’t know how I was going to do it. Seeing my face, the girls reminded me that they were all there to support me and to compare mine to theirs - giggling that I still probably had the best boobs. After I saw all the different shapes and sizes of all their breasts (and one friend who totally rocked her inverted nipple), I felt calmer about looking at my own boobs. What I saw was an angry looking red scar and a lump missing from my breast as if someone had come and taken a bite out of it, but it was ok. 

I spent the next six months waiting for my reconstructive surgery, where they took some of the fat from my bum and stomach and used it to ‘fill out’ the missing gap in my breast. It was hard, and dating and sex were certainly off the cards, but at least my boobs still looked like boobs, and I still looked like me. 

Well I did, at least, until I took off the surgical compression bra and put on one of my own. I expected it not to fit my left breast properly and had thought I could stuff it with tissue or cotton wool if I needed to, but when I put on my favourite, lace La Perla balconette bra that I’d saved up for weeks to buy only a few months earlier, I got a stabbing pain across my scar on my breast and all the way up my back. I tried on a softer cup and got the same issue - in fact, the same thing happened when I tried all my favourite bras on.  

With a sinking feeling, I realised what the issue was - all of these bras had underwires and I was going to have to say goodbye to them for at least six months, if not forever (who knew what size and shape my breasts were going to be after the reconstructive surgery?). As I thought about the money I had wasted buying my extensive selection of lingerie and the joy it had given me displaying them in the vintage chest of draws in my bedroom I just broke down and cried. Thankfully, my mother found me and gave me the answer, swearing for what I like to think was the first time in her life she said, ‘get a fucking grip, listen to what your surgeon told you and come with me to get some new bras.’ The pure shock and hilarity of hearing my mother swear at her weeping, cancer patient daughter was enough to bring me out of my slump and immediately jump into her car to John Lewis to sort it out. If she wasn’t there that day, I’m not sure how I would have got through it. 

Deciding to take my doctors advice and after some panic-research on forums, I picked myself a selection of wireless bras to try out when I got home. First I attempted a soft cup bra which was little more than a training bra which, whilst comfortable at first, was a nightmare if I tried to walk down the stairs, go over a speed bump or, indeed, breathe without getting a stabbing feeling in my boob. Less than ideal. 

Then I tried a sports bra which, as any woman will know, is like putting your breasts in jail which is great if you’re planning on running a wiggle-free marathon but not ideal if your boobs are so tender they hurt when you sneeze. After many failed attempts with bras I could bear to look at, I decided to take the advice of the many women discussing this issue in online forums and see if there was anyone out there going through the same thing as I was. To my amazing relief, I saw hundreds of women providing support, sharing what they’d been through and laughing about how they’d abandoned hope of having any kind of sex bra for the time being in favour of something that was loose and supportive. It was time to accept what was happening to me and make like these amazing women and go shopping for comfort. And comfort meant a maternity bra.

I went to the department store and walked past the sexy lace and into what I’d always seen as the grandma’s section. I eventually went for a beige (for some reason, they’re all beige) maternity bra with huge, ugly straps and a high neckline so my NHS, chicken fillet-style prosthesis didn’t fall out. The moment I put it on, I was more comfortable than I had been in weeks and, underneath the right dress, you’d never know it wasn’t like any other bra. I might not have looked sexy, but fuck me I suddenly felt comfortable, a luxury I had all but forgotten about since I’d had the surgery. 

Suddenly, I realised how silly I’d been this entire time by putting my own comfort and well-being behind attempting to look sexy. I had cancer and cancer kills millions of people every day. Who cares what bra you’re wearing if you’re a corpse? My ugly as hell training bra wasn’t an indication of what I’d lost, it was a symbol of what I’d survived. I’ll take that over some lace and a bit of ribbon any day. 

Tip: Stop clinging to meaningless things from your past - like sexy bras - and appreciate just how powerful and amazing your body is for enduring what it has gone through. All the rest will come after.

If like our case study, you or a friend is facing cancer, why not visit The Source to find inspiring tips of support and advice from people who’ve been there.

You might also be interested in: 

Things You Only Know If Your Mum's Had Breast Cancer 

I Found Out I Had Cervical Cancer On My 25th Birthday 

My Best Friend Had Breast Cancer And I Didn't Know How To Deal 

As told to Sophie Cullinane - follow Sophie on Twitter @SophieCullinane

Picture: Vianna  

Tags: Getting Ready