As part of our Boost of Confidence blog series, we invited breast cancer advocate and Athleta brand ambassador Kimberly Irvine to share her story about helping to design a mastectomy sports bra, and what the experience taught her about the role of self-esteem in living a healthy and active life.
Getting regular exercise is an important part of being healthy, including for people diagnosed with breast cancer. Experts say appropriate exercise is safe during and after breast cancer treatment. Plus, research shows it can lower your risk of recurrence (the cancer coming back) while improving your quality of life and longevity.
Sticking to an exercise routine is hard enough. But an added, unexpected challenge I faced was finding active wear to work out in after I had a mastectomy without reconstruction. My bulky prosthetic bra inserts were very uncomfortable during exercise, and I didn’t feel confident going to the gym without them.
I soon learned that many women who choose to “go flat” face the same challenges with finding sports bras, swimsuits, and tops that fit and support them correctly. I had the opportunity to join an amazing group of women tasked with helping a design team create a better mastectomy sports bra. The experience made me realize that no two women are the same, and we all need options that work for our bodies to give us the confidence we need to live active, healthy lives.
My “new normal”
I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the young age of 31. I survived that journey and chose to have a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Then the cancer recurred three and a half years later. This time, I decided to not have breast reconstruction and go flat on both sides.
No one prepared me for the new normal I was about to face as a result of going flat. Early on, I used scarves to hide my flat chest. But over time, I came around to the idea of using prosthetic breast forms, despite initially feeling like I was too young for this solution.
At first, I struggled with the types of tops I wanted to wear, often feeling frustrated and disappointed with how things fit me. I can remember the time I sat in a fitting room, crying my eyes out with intense frustration because nothing fit me right. After I started to embrace my prostheses, I began to figure out what worked for me and expand my wardrobe, but I still had difficulty finding workout attire that worked with my new body.
Exercising carried a whole set of new challenges. It was impossible for me to use my heavy prosthetics while working out. I stopped going to the gym, and instead worked out at home where I didn’t have to worry about how I looked. But I knew this wasn’t right for me — I needed a better solution.
A better mastectomy bra
Determined to regain my confidence and get back to the gym, I began experimenting with layering the padded inserts in my sports bras to make my concave chest less noticeable. It gave me a new sense of comfort, and allowed me to take back some control the cancer had taken from me.
I realized there was a gap in the activewear market, and wondered how many other women struggled with this same issue — whether they had chosen a single or bilateral mastectomy, with or without reconstruction.
So I reached out to a women’s activewear company you may have heard of called Athleta. I loved their products, their brand, and their mission of empowering women and young girls to live healthy, active lives.
It turns out, the company was aware of this unmet need for sports bras, swimsuits, and tops for women like me. I met with their team and shared my story, the reality of my new normal, and the needs of my post-surgery body. I showed them how I was layering padded inserts, how heavy my traditional prosthetics were, and how uncomfortable it was for me when I cycled, ran, strength-trained, or took a yoga class.
We then collaborated on a solution that would allow women who’ve had a mastectomy to work out without the heavy burden of traditional breast prosthetics. For me, a solution to this problem was key to maintaining my new normal without negatively impacting my self-esteem or confidence.
Months later, after many others who shared my experience helped with product testing, we launched the Empower Pad — a light-weight, washable, and quick-drying mastectomy bra insert. The initial product line has since expanded into a whole collection of sports bras and mastectomy bras for daily wear with easy-on front zippers, all designed to work with the Empower Pad. I even got to model them on the Athleta website, which was a new and inspiring experience for me!
Women need options
I have chosen entirely different options during each of my breast cancer experiences — I chose reconstruction the first time, and chose to go flat the second. What I have learned is that women affected by breast cancer need options to feel good about how we look while staying fit.
Of course, not all women who choose to "go flat" feel the need to wear prosthetics. For me, the inserts gave me back my confidence. But what I love about these products is that the inserts are optional, so if you find it more empowering to exercise without them, or if you’ve had a lumpectomy, the bras are still designed to provide support and comfort to any woman who’s had breast cancer surgery (of course, after you’re out of your surgical bra).
Three tips for gaining the comfort and confidence to exercise
The Empower Pad has changed my life, and I’m so grateful for the journey that led me to it. I’ve learned so much along the way about confidence, self-esteem, and being empowered to live a healthy, active lifestyle. Below you’ll find three tips for gaining the confidence to make exercise a regular part of your life after breast cancer treatment.
Consider a mastectomy sports bra. If you have recently gone through a lumpectomy or mastectomy, consider a mastectomy sports bra like the Empower Bra. It’s coverage, adjustable straps, easy on/off design, softer stitching, and breathable mesh racerback provide comfort and support so you can make the most of your workout, and the optional pad pockets accommodate a range of cup sizes.
There are also many other brands that carry bras and active wear for women who’ve had surgery for breast cancer. Breastcancer.org Community members recommend Athleta, Amoena, AnaOno, Anita, Coobie, and LuisaLuisa.
- Fabric and fit is important. When choosing tops or leggings, identify what material and type of fit is comfortable to you. Many fabrics can be uncomfortable on our postmastectomy skin, so you might want to stick to natural fibers, such as cotton, or blends that are breathable.
- Celebrate your victories. You can rebuild the confidence and self-esteem you might be struggling with, and working out is a great way to do it. Each home workout, long walk, gym session, or exercise class is a victory you should celebrate, whether you’re just starting out or are sticking to a regular exercise routine. Give yourself credit for those victories so you’ll feel more motivated to stay active.
For more information on the importance of exercise for people affected by breast cancer, visit the Exercise pages on Breastcancer.org.
Kimberly Irvine is a two-time breast cancer survivor, passionate advocate, consultant, and CEO of her Chicago firm at kimberlyirvine.com. Kim was first diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 31 years old; her second diagnosis came four years later at age 35. Her treatments included surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation, all while being a mother to two young children. Currently, she has no evidence of disease. Kim attributes her survivorship to her faith, strength, hope, and passion. She has recently published a memoir about her breast cancer experience titled STRONG(ER+): Becoming My Own Best Advocate and Discovering My Purpose. By sharing her story as a two-time cancer survivor, Kim aims to empower others to be advocates in their healthcare decisions.