Lingerie and Breast Cancer: Learning to Love My Perfectly Imperfect Breasts
Today's guest post is by Anetta Kalk. Anetta is a mother, writer, and licensed marriage therapist in California. Born in the former Soviet Union, she immigrated to the US 26 years ago. Anetta’s passion for lingerie came soon after finding her first La Perla bra at a San Francisco boutique 25 years ago. Ever since then she has been collecting and enjoying all things lingerie.
Breast cancer is stressful. No one will deny or question that. From the initial diagnosis, to the treatment course, to the fatigue of post-surgery - all are undeniably key elements of the fight with breast cancer. I sort of expected that. What I did not expect was changing the way I view lingerie in this new, challenging, and always-changing time.
I will admit it - I love great lingerie. I love the lacey, intricate, smooth, mysterious, seductive, innocent lingerie. I love corsets, bras, teddies, and basques of all shapes, textures and colors. Having grown up in the scarcity of the former Soviet Union with its utilitarian approach to underwear (lingerie cannot be used to describe the stiff underpinnings of non-descript color), over my many years in the US I have developed a true love and appreciation for well designed, beautifully-crafted lingerie.
I have spent a lot of money and efforts to curate my lovely collection. All of it for my own pleasure to be worn under my uniform of crisp white button-downs, cashmere sweaters, denim, and leather. Lingerie has always been my way to bring color and femininity into my minimalist, androgynous wardrobe.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 46, I did not think that it would change my relationship with my breasts, myself, and my lingerie. When one is diagnosed with breast cancer, it takes some time between the diagnosis, the surgery, the treatments, and then, if one chooses, the reconstruction.
I contemplated preventative bilateral mastectomy but both my US and French doctors said no need to (“Would you preventatively remove an arm?!”). In my case, I went for a lumpectomy, followed by radiation. What I did not realize at the time was that my days of simply grabbing a bra that suits my mood, fits my outfit, and serves its purpose were over. The cancer was gone, changing the breast in ways I did not expect at all.
The breasts and the bras became symbolic of that period of my life. I ended up discussing my reconstruction options with my surgeons, both in California and in France where I flew for a second opinion. Two surgeons lost themselves in discussing my future breasts in that most romantic of languages. The options were given, then confirmed by my amazing surgeon in California. And the adventure began.
With a plan in hand and a surgery date set, I started looking at my collection wistfully, imagining wearing my favorite lace bras and mesh teddies.
No one told me that breast reconstruction, even for a lumpectomy and radiation fibrosis defects, is a process that would require patience, tolerance of the unexpected, and new bras for all kinds of changes and stages.
Not to sound like breast cancer is some cosmetic thing, I would say though that the change in the appearance that occurred affected the way I see myself. The need to find something that fits after surgeries, does not irritate the scars and the skin, supports and yet does not make me profoundly sad, was a challenge.
The things I learned and wish I knew:
- Breast cancer changes the shape of the breast.
- Your breasts will never look or feel the same even after a “small” lumpectomy. The shape of the breasts will change, so will the fit of the bras.
- Getting rid of all my bras was more stressful than I expected. It was like saying goodbye to the previous version of myself.
- All of a sudden one’s aesthetic and sense of style get challenged. One needs all sorts of bras - comfortable, functional, and, most often, unattractive.
- Finding an attractive yet comfortable bra involves a lot of patience and time.
- Your clothes will not fit the same after reconstruction, even if the size the surgeon aimed for is the same as pretreatment. It is neither good or bad; it is a change that I had to deal with.
- Breast cancer may change the size. I, for one, started paying more attention to my cleavage and realized I never wanted large breasts. Going from 32C to 32DD by surgical “accident” has been quite a challenge for my sense of style and sense of self.
- Scars did not bother me at all. The breast asymmetry did.
- Breast cancer does not kill the love of lingerie. Looking at all the lingerie sales during the 2 years of treatments and 5 surgeries was a challenge and an exercise in impulse control. I realized how much I like lingerie sales. Living without new bras was a new experience, a diet of the senses.
- I discovered that there is a whole new section of good looking post-mastectomy bras. Post-lumpectomy ones are much harder to find.
- Finding a custom lingerie maker/designer was a wonderful discovery and felt like a much-needed indulgence. Elma Shop was my go-to shop that carried me through 2 years of surgeries.
- Breast cancer is expensive if you are going through reconstruction and have a passion for lingerie.
Breasts were never the focus point of my individual style. I simply had them. Then I realized how much they matter to me, giving the sense of a complete whole. After the latest surgery, I told my surgeon that I would treat the “new” breasts as a piece of art he created by using different surgical techniques. They look and feel natural! They move! They have sensation! I got to love that they are imperfectly perfect - scars, shapes, and color.
I now have to think of where the underwire starts and ends so that it does not mess with the circulation on one side and does not irritate the scars on both. I have to find the softest fabrics, fewest seams, flattest embroidery, and silkiest lace, so as not to irritate the skin on one of the breasts. All these things could have irritated me before, now I find myself immersed in the process the way I used to be immersed in champagne tasting and selection. It is such a difference from where I was just a short time away - shopping for all items post-surgical with their utilitarian esthetic that clashed with my sense of the world.
Seeing my reflection in the mirror wearing a beige post-surgery bra was like seeing the unwell version of me, settling for less, something I do not think is healthy for one’s emotional well-being. The colorful array of lingerie on my “To Buy” visual board is an interesting way to give myself a much-needed fresh start and hopeful outlook on life.
In the end, breast cancer has led me to a new realization about how the simple pleasure of putting on one's bra of choice. How liking an imperfect set of breasts can give hope after the disease is gone, hopefully for good.