As part of our Boost of Confidence blog series, we invited breast cancer survivor and fashion blogger Anna Crollman to share her advice on rethinking your style after breast cancer treatment changes your body.
Breast cancer treatment can do a number on your body, your psyche, and your self-confidence. Depending on the type of treatment you have, your body can change drastically in a short period of time. You may discover that, suddenly, nothing in your closet fits right, and finding new clothes that make you feel confident is no easy task.
I’ve been there. Fertility preservation, chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and hormonal therapy left me with a body I didn’t recognize. Some of the most significant challenges I faced were weight gain, menopausal symptoms, and sensitivity all brought on by my treatment and its side effects. All of these challenges affected not only my physical appearance, but my sense of self and body image as well.
But as my body continued to change after treatment, fashion became a way for me to reclaim my body by redefining my personal style. I faced many challenges and learned many lessons that I wish to share with you in hopes of helping you feel good about the way you get dressed during and after cancer treatment. Below, you’ll find five lessons I learned that truly helped me navigate my body changes and rebuild both my self-esteem and sense of style.
1. Put away the clothes that don’t fit
I gained over 10 pounds during chemo — something no one warned me about. The stereotypical cancer patient loses weight and here I was gaining. This weight gain left me struggling to fit into my clothes and feeling insecure. During chemo, it was easy enough to say “Oh, I’ll lose the weight later,” But after chemo is when the depression really set in.
I was so frustrated with myself for not immediately losing the weight and disappointed that I didn’t look like my old self. One of the best things I did for myself during this time was to put my tight clothes away. By hiding those clothes under my bed or in the back of the closet, I was able to move away from the self-destructive feelings I faced each morning when staring into a closet of outfits that no longer fit.
I wanted my closet to be a safe and supportive space, not somewhere that brought me to tears with frustration. To start making the transition, I invested in a few new pieces — not a whole wardrobe, but a few skirts and a pair of pants two sizes bigger that flattered my new weight. I knew it wouldn’t be long-term, but it allowed me to accept my body as a work in progress.
2. Make friends with a tailor
Don’t want to invest in new pieces, or have items you’d rather modify than get rid of? Make friends with a tailor! I realized the benefits of a tailor about 5 years ago when I went through a 20-pound weight gain and loss. Working with a tailor helped me modify my current wardrobe as I slowly lost the weight.
As a petite woman, I am always struggling to find clothes that fit me off the rack. Working with a tailor has helped me change my clothes to fit my body instead of trying to change my body to fit the clothes. Tailors can do everything from hemming pants, to adding prosthetic pockets, or even taking out the waist of your favorite skirt to better flatter your body. Not every piece can be modified, but before you give up on an outfit, get a tailor’s opinion.
3. Be open to change
I was a busty gal ever since sixth grade, so going through reconstruction forced me to reevaluate everything I knew about flattering tops and styles. No longer was I limited to highly supportive tops or styles that concealed my chest. I could have rejected this change and attempted to stick with my former styles, but I found power in embracing these new opportunities. Backless shirts, off-the-shoulder looks — I was excited to try it all!
Even 3 years later, I am constantly challenging myself to try new styles. As my body changes, I look at it as an opportunity to try something new instead of a limitation. As you’re experimenting, capitalize on the options available at resale stores. You won’t want to invest a bunch of money into a new style only to find it doesn’t work for you. Try on a new look from a thrift store, or borrow something from a friend. This is a great way to experiment without the commitment.
Finding your new style is all about trial and error for a few months as you learn your new body and determine what you feel good in. Remember you have changed — not just physically, but emotionally, as well. Your style can be a way to embrace that change and redefine yourself.
4. Comfort is key
After breast cancer treatment, your body may be tender and not feel like your own. Expanders, radiation, and things like a port-a-cath can feel uncomfortable and foreign. Some feel that style means sacrificing comfort, but it’s not true — just shop with comfort in mind! Look for brands that specifically use soft or gentle materials. AnaOno Intimates and Athleta are great examples. They both design bras and lounge wear with breast cancer survivors in mind and are mindful of seams, underwire, or other potential pain points.
Can’t find the style you want in a comfortable material? Invest in undershirts or soft bras as a protective layer. True&Co. bras are soft and thin, and can make even your most uncomfortable shirt bearable. As your body is changing, and you attempt to stick with comfortable clothing, look to belts as an easy way to transition flowy tops, dresses and skirts as your weight fluctuates and your chest size changes.
Comfort is not just physical. It’s just as important to feel confident in a style as it is to be physically comfortable. Ask yourself, “What styles or garments make me feel good?” If you feel good in something, your confidence will shine through, and confidence is what really makes you stylish.
5. Reflect and adapt
Sometimes I will put an outfit together that looked fabulous in theory, but on my body something just doesn’t feel right. Listen to that gut reaction. If it doesn’t feel like you, don’t force it. Over time, you will learn from your experiences and begin to cultivate a style and wardrobe you really love. There are a couple of things that have helped me through this process over the last 3 years.
Taking progress photos of my changing body and my outfits really helped me experiment and reflect. As I worked to lose my chemo weight, the progress photos also served as a way to track my progress and celebrate my success. Seeing yourself in a photo is also a great way to decide if a style is right for you. When I look back at outfits I’ve worn, I can more easily reflect on what I want to change or modify to feel better about the look and more confident. That could be something as simple as adding a belt, or swapping a top. Don’t be afraid to reflect on what worked and make modifications. Experimenting means sometimes your outfit won’t be a win and that’s OK. Don’t stop trying.
Adaptability is essential. My reconstruction took over 2 years from start to finish, so I was constantly having to adjust my style. Having photos to look back on from each phase of the reconstruction process helped me adapt more easily each time I went through changes. While I hope to be done with surgery for now, I have a great arsenal of surgery recovery outfits, chemo weight outfits, and everything in between.
I have found that when it comes to fashion, there is never one right approach — it’s all about learning your body and finding what works best for you. This can be a challenge for someone in treatment for breast cancer, as our bodies are often changing. The good part is, the process is the same no matter how many times you have to go through it. It requires constant reflection and adaptation, but the end result will be a more flattering wardrobe and styles that make you feel confident.
Anna Crollman is a young breast cancer survivor, style enthusiast, and the voice behind My Cancer Chic, a blog she created to share her story, insight, and passion for all things style and beauty. You can connect with Anna at mycancerchic.com or on Instagram @mycancerchic.