Lymphedema presents clothing challenges.
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
Summer is a challenging month for many women. We don't like sweat. It's unattractive and bothersome. We don't enjoy having to reapply our makeup or wear ultra strength deodorant to keep ourselves looking and smelling pleasant. But add to those minor inconveniences the challenges of having to wear silicone prostheses and compression sleeves for lymphedema and you get some pretty hot ladies! No, I'm not talking about hot as in extremely good looking ... I'm talking about hot as in lots of heat, as in “who turned up the thermostat to 120 degrees?!” The excessive heat of summer is instantly compounded by having to wear these medically necessary items. So what's a girl to do?
My first summer after having bilateral mastectomies, I went without prostheses. My scars were still pretty raw and I didn't like to have anything rubbing against my skin. I found cotton tank tops provided just enough coverage while at the same time kept me cool and dry. It wasn't a problem to wear those around home, but when I wanted to go out to dinner or visit friends, I needed to dress more appropriately, and that meant wearing my prostheses.
When I went for my first fitting, the breast specialist spent a lot of time with me. I tried on several different styles of prostheses and was amazed at the different types available. My fitter brought in a flesh colored pair of breast forms with a clear backing. She explained they were a new model. The clear gel diamond backing was specially formulated to help keep my skin cool. I hadn't given a single thought to the prostheses and how they would feel against my skin. I naturally assumed, since they were silicone, that they'd be cool, but that was not the case. Even inside the mastectomy bra, the regular prostheses picked up my body heat. Discovering the difference between the normal silicone prostheses and the newer cool gel backed ones made my choice an easy one. But even on a hot Georgia day, rivers of sweat trickle down my chest when I wear my prostheses. The cool gel backing helps but doesn't make summer easy. I don't like having sweaty boobs so nine times out of 10, I don't wear my prostheses. It's just a lot more comfortable not to wear them, and a whole lot cooler, too. Silicone prostheses aren't the only challenge contributing to a miserable summer. Lymphedema also brings its own set of issues.
One of the major long-term complications after lymph node removal is lymphedema, an uncomfortable swelling in the arms. With the disruption of the normal lymphatic flow, the lymphatic fluid often collects in the extremities and causes painful swelling. At the time of my bilateral mastectomy, I had lymph nodes in both arms removed and found out months later that I was the lucky recipient of not only one arm with lymphedema, but two. At first, the swelling was pretty manageable with elevation and manual lymphatic drainage performed by a certified lymphedema massage therapist but, as the warm summer months began, the swelling increased. My breast surgeon recommended compression sleeves and gauntlets to help keep the swelling down. Every morning, I donned my cool gel prostheses and my compression sleeves. I felt like I was putting on battle gear. As long as I was inside with air conditioning it was bearable. But outside in the heat, it was a different story. So what to do? I had to wear the sleeves and gauntlets. If I didn't, the swelling would become unmanageable. The lymphedema sleeves I had been prescribed were made of a very tight Spandex-type material. They were not breathable and trapped my body heat inside them. I knew I couldn't go through the entire Summer with sweaty boobs and swollen arms or I'd swelter, so I got online and did some research. I found a website called LympheDIVAS.
They sell arm sleeves with a new type of technology called Coolmax. It allows the sleeves to wick away moisture from the skin by helping it evaporate and cool down faster. I was so happy to have found a solution to my problem! Now, I could keep my chest and arms cool but I still had one more problem to deal with in order to stay cool for the Summer.
Lymphedema caused my arms to swell so much that I couldn't wear normal sized blouses or tops. The sleeves were not big enough to hold my massive arms. Even with the compression sleeves, my upper arms were massive. If I bought shirts in a larger size, I might be able to find one that fit in the arm area but I'd just look sloppy and unkempt everywhere else. While most women enjoy the comfort of wearing sleeveless or short sleeved tops in the Summer, I liked to stay as covered as possible to hide my swollen arms and fake boobs. Trying to do both of these presented a challenge. There weren't many choices available in fashionable women's apparel. There weren't blouses that provided adequate coverage and cool comfort at the same time. Once again, I had to do some research. I began strictly searching for lymphedema apparel. It seemed there weren't many choices for those who suffer upper arm lymphedema. I couldn't find a single site dedicated to clothing for women with upper arm swelling. Of course, there were Dolman sleeves, cap sleeves, butterfly sleeves, Caftan-type shirts...but all of these were not currently in style. Most of those styles were popular in the 70's. So how can women who suffer from lymphedema today dress stylishly and still meet their needs to wear non-restrictive clothing? Unless you are a seamstress or know someone who is, you'll have to compromise and accept one of the types of blouses with the sleeves I previously mentioned. By visiting a website like Shopstyle
and searching for a loose, flowing blouse you'll probably find something to suit your needs. Maybe a local retail store offers other types of shirts to camouflage the swelling lymphedema creates.
Perhaps in the future, clothing manufacturers will realize there is a huge market for clothing geared specifically toward those who suffer from upper arm lymphedema. I certainly hope so because it would help make hot days much more pleasant and help folks like me remain cool, calm and collected instead of having to focus on sweaty boobs and swollen arms.