Breast cancer treatment can change how you look and feel. Whether it’s shifting what you wear or how you decide to handle hair loss from chemo, you’re still in charge.
Buying a wardrobe that fits and makes you feel good is important,” says Maryam Lustberg, MD, MPH, director of The Breast Center at Smilow Cancer Hospital. “But it’s really important to acknowledge the emotional and spiritual aspect of it, too.”
Here are some expert tips on clothes, bras, wigs, and other headwear.
You can search for cancer-specific clothes online. Or reach out to other people who’ve gone through the same thing. You can find like-minded folks through social media or organizations such as Breastcancer.org and the American Cancer Society.
You can also:
Meet with a tailor. If possible, visit a cancer-focused shop. They’ll measure you and give you tips for how to dress your body as it is now, which may be bigger or smaller than before.
Wear cozy clothes. You might have more sensitivity if you’ve had extensive breast surgery, such as a mastectomy or reconstruction. But in general, wear soft garments that are easy to take on and off.
Dress for treatment. If you have a port, try a V-neck shirt or something with buttons or a zipper down the front, says Patti Frey, an oncology nurse with Northwestern Medicine Cancer Center.
Short sleeves are a good choice if you get chemo through a vein in your arm. And wear layers. You might get hot or cold during treatment. “You never know how you’re going to feel,” Frey says.
Create your power wardrobe. Wear clothes that help you feel “put together,” says Marissa Weiss, MD, founder and chief medical officer for Breastcancer.org.
Avoid wearing things that are too tight. You don’t want to feel physically uncomfortable. “Gently-fitted” clothes also give you more privacy. “You might have surgical drains or other asymmetries you don’t want to reveal,” Weiss says.
Ask for help. Fatigue can be a big part of cancer treatment. “If you need things to go to the dry cleaners and be picked up, tell somebody else to do that for you,” Frey says. “Save your energy for the things that you enjoy doing.”
It depends on your treatment. Some people can go without extra support for a while, Frey says. But check with your health care team. You might need to wear a surgical bra.
“Medical-grade bras are typically softer and don’t have underwire,” Lustberg says. “They usually have a zipper up front. And if you have drains, some of these undergarments have a place where you can more easily access [them].”
When you switch back to a personal bra, keep comfort in mind.
“It’s particularly important to wear a seamless bra — one that’s smooth on the inside and outside — if you’re getting radiation,” Weiss says. Avoid underwire bras, lacy bras, and any bras with elastic bands that have zig-zag stitches during this time for your skin’s sake.
If you’re going to get chemotherapy as part of your treatment and it’s a type of chemo that causes hair loss, you have options about how you want to handle that.
The hair loss starts about 2-3 weeks after chemo begins. It doesn’t come out all at once. Many people get their heads shaved as a way to take control when that starts to happen.
Hair loss is a big deal for a lot of people. Weiss even knows people who found it more troubling than losing their breasts.
“It wasn’t part of your plan to explain to people, including strangers, about why you have no hair or why you don’t want to talk about that in a parking lot,” Weiss says.
If that’s true for you, a wig can be a good way to preserve your sense of self and protect your privacy.
If you don’t want a wig and feel OK about any hair loss showing, that’s fine, too. It’s a personal choice.
You can buy a wig off the shelf. But ask your doctor to prescribe a “cranial prosthesis” — a wig — and your health insurance provider should cover the cost. Call your insurer ahead of time to confirm how much they’ll cover.
There are pros and cons to different kinds of wigs, including:
Human hair. These may look more natural, but they can be costly and a bit trickier to manage. “Over time, they can look kind of dull if you wear them a lot,” Weiss says. “They don’t have the natural oils” of hair growing out of your scalp.
Synthetic. These tend to cost less than wigs made with human hair. And they’re usually easier to care for. “You can throw them around more and they don’t get funky on you,” Weiss says.
You don’t need to wear your wig as-is. A specialist can help you get a look you love.
Go to “a hair stylist or cancer boutique, where they can frame the layers to fit more naturally,” Lustberg says.
Ask your doctor about scalp cooling. “Cold caps” may lessen chemo-related hair loss for some people. Your cancer center might have a scalp-cooling unit. If you want to buy your own, ask your health care team exactly how to use it and what you can expect. And check with your health insurance provider to see if they’ll pay for it.
Without your hair or a wig, your head may feel chillier than usual. So you might want a cap or scarf for it.
Some companies make products for people going through cancer treatment. But you don’t have to buy special chemo headwear.
You’ll want a head covering that’s soft and secure. In the summer, pick a lightweight material that you find comfortable. You might like 100% cotton, rayon, silk, or bamboo. Fleece or chenille can keep you warm in winter.
- “Skull cap” for under your wig
- Sleep cap
- Form-fitting cap or beanie
- Hats for different seasons
- Pre-tied or slip-on head scarf
You can wrap a scarf yourself. It just takes a little practice to learn how.
Look Good Feel Good is a program that offers group or online beauty tips for people getting cancer treatment. You can also find videos online showing you different looks with scarves.
Some people wear a baseball cap with a ponytail in the back. You can find headbands with synthetic hair designed for this look.
Your health insurance provider probably won’t pay for a scarf or hat. But there are local and national groups that’ll help you find free headwear. Ask your doctor or call the American Cancer Society at 800-227-2345 for more info.
Don’t forget your scalp when you reach for your sunscreen. Radiation and chemotherapy can make you more sensitive to the sun.
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 50 or higher.
- Wear a tight-woven hat with a 5-inch brim.
- Keep radiation-treated areas away from the sun.
- Cover your arms and chest with an oversized button-down shirt.
- Sit under an umbrella when you’re at the pool, beach, or eating outside.
Be gentle with your scalp when your hair starts to fall out. It can be tender and painful. Here are some things you can do as you go through treatment:
- Use baby shampoo.
- Pat your hair dry.
- Use a baby brush with soft bristles.
- Don’t blow dry your hair.
Eyelashes can take several months after chemo ends to grow back in. And they might not grow back just like they were before.
Some people use lash boosters or artificial lashes, Lustberg says.
Eyebrows also can come out with chemo. Some people get eyebrow microblading, a type of permanent makeup, ahead of chemotherapy. The main reason is to keep the outline of your eyebrows. “Once the hair is falling off, you’re less sure about the shape,” Lustberg says.
You can also learn from online beauty tutorials or at a local makeup counter. Your health care team may have advice on where to go. “They know what’s good in your area,” Frey says.
Going through cancer treatment isn’t easy. Dealing with body changes can run a lot deeper than switching out your clothes or remembering to use sunscreen on your scalp.
Let people close to you know how you’re feeling. You can also ask your doctor to refer you a mental health professional. “One-on-one support with a dedicated cancer counselor can be really important,” Lustberg says.
Or reach out to a breast cancer support group. “A lot of times, talking to people who’ve been in your shoes and have gone through it really makes a world of difference,” Frey says.