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Sit Back, Relax, and Enjoy the Summer

Advice for Breast Cancer Survivors on Making the Most of the Warmer Weather


Breast Cancer image

Summer can be the best of times, or, if you’re in breast cancer treatment or recovery, the most challenging of times. It’s a season to enjoy the outdoors, go on vacation, and spend time with family and friends.

But for someone who is undergoing treatment or has recently completed treatment, summer activities and weather can raise some questions: How will I look in a bathing suit? Will the breast form stay in place? Are my scars cov­ered? Am I allowed to go out in the sun? If I wear a wig, can I still enjoy the pool or beach? Here, you’ll find answers to these questions, along with helpful summertime tips and advice.

Protect Your Skin
Sunshine feels great – especially after a long, cold winter. Getting some sun is a good way to improve your mood, energy level, and sense of optimism. A little bit of sunshine can also help your body pro­cess vitamin D, which is important for bone health. Just 10 minutes of outdoor light each day is enough.

But too much sun exposure can be dangerous. It can cause skin cancer, cataracts, wrinkles, and painful burns that may permanently damage skin. It can also make side effects of some chemotherapy worse. While not always predictable, chemotherapies can also cause some people to become sensitive to sunlight, leading to increased skin reaction, tanning, and burning. Intense sun exposure can also weaken the im­mune system even more than treatment has already. So it’s important to use sunscreen.

Skin in an area that’s receiving radiation therapy should be protected from the sun with a bathing suit or with other clothing, since the skin may already be red or burned from the treat­ments. If you’re undergoing radiation therapy, ask your radiation oncologist or nurse whether using sunscreen is likely to irritate your radiated skin.

If you’ve lost your hair from chemotherapy, or it’s just starting to grow back, the most important thing during the summer is to protect the skin on your head from the sun.

Feel Better in a Bathing Suit
Swimming – any time of the year – is a terrific way to get moderate exer­cise and strengthen your body before, during, and after breast cancer treat­ment. There’s nothing like a cool swim on a hot day to relax your mind and refresh your spirit – just be sure to check with your doctor before starting any new exercise.

Before you start thinking about bath­ing suits, remember this comforting thought: most women are self-conscious in a bathing suit, whether they’ve been through breast cancer treatment or not. Still, we put up with them because they’re part of the summer package that also includes swimming; a warm, relaxing environment; and outdoor fun.

Sure, some women are completely at ease in a bathing suit. But if you’re having any feelings of insecurity, look up and down the beach or around the poolside. You’ll see all kinds of bodies: small, medium, large, extra-large. They’re all OK. Perfection doesn’t exist. So don’t waste your precious energy on feeling insecure. Instead, use it for pleasant and interesting thoughts, fun, and sharing time with friends and family.

If you’ve recently had surgery for breast cancer, you may be wondering what your options are for buying a bathing suit that’s comfortable for you. Several bathing suit brands are designed for women who have had breast cancer surgery (mastectomy or lumpectomy). These suits have higher necklines and armholes, to conceal scars. They also have built-in bra pockets for securing breast forms (prostheses) if you have not had reconstruction.

Some suits have other features, such as figure-smoothing panels and skirts, that are popular with many women regardless of whether they’ve had breast surgery. And yes, experts agree that dark solid colors are the most flattering.

You may not need a specially designed bathing suit. If you find standard swimwear that you like, the retailer might be able to add a breast-form bra pocket to the inside of the suit. Some stores charge for this ser­vice; others don’t.

If you have not had reconstruction and do use breast forms, you may consider getting a swim form, which is like a conventional breast form but much lighter. Although weighted forms are good for everyday use – to main­tain balance and protect against back and neck pain – they may be uncom­fortable or just downright heavy when swimming.

Swim forms are less dense and float better than weighted forms. Made from clear silicone, they’re designed to allow water to flow naturally across the chest. Some attach into the bathing suit with fabric tabs, to prevent unexpected “pop-up” moments. Built-in pockets also hold them in successfully. An ultra­light swim form, made from whipped silicone, is practically weightless. It attaches directly to the skin of the chest with adhesive for a more natural line. attaches directly to the skin of the chest Chlorinated water, saltwater, heat, and sunlight won’t damage silicone breast forms, but forms should be washed by hand and kept dry between uses.

Cover Your Head or Go Au Naturel
If you’ve lost your hair from chemo­therapy, or it’s just starting to grow back, the most important thing during the summer is to protect the skin on your head from the sun. Beyond that, do whatever is most comfortable for you in the heat of summer.

You might decide to wear a scarf, turban, or hat. If so, choose a breath­able, washable fabric, like cotton, to absorb sweat and keep you cool.

If you are most comfortable with nothing on your head, remember that your scalp isn’t used to sunlight and can burn easily. If you go outdoors in the daytime with no head covering, be sure to put plenty of zinc-based sun­block (SPF 45 or higher) on your head, ears, and face.

If you decide to wear a wig, several different options are available to you. Synthetic wigs are often recommended. They hold their style, even if they get a bit wet in the pool or ocean. The fibers don’t fade or change color in the sun. (But they can melt at high temperatures, like near an open flame, over an oven or grill, or if you use hot hair-styling tools.)

While most wigs tend to be some­what hot and itchy in the summer, lightweight synthetics are an alterna­tive. Their open-cap construction allows the head to breathe and heat to escape, so they’re cooler to wear. Stan­dard synthetics may be worn with a mesh wig liner that’s like a fishnet stocking. This type of liner also helps keep your head cool.

Some women prefer the look and feel of wigs made from human hair. Human-hair wigs may match your nat­ural hair more closely than synthetic hair. But they tend to be heavier than standard synthetic wigs and often require full lace caps, which can be­come hot in the summer.

Most wigs have Velcro adjustments in the back to hold them on your head securely, even when you’re strolling in an ocean breeze. No matter which type you wear, you’ll probably sweat under it. For comfort, try a little cornstarch-based baby powder or a cotton liner. Ask a specialist at the salon or shop where you purchased the wig whether it’s OK to wash the wig your­self. Synthetic wigs may require different washing techniques than natural hair wigs.

You may have been wearing a wig for the past six months, during and after chemotherapy, and you’re just not sure if your new hair is long enough to wear on its own. You may be surprised by how fresh, sexy, and pretty very short hair can be. Try not to stay stuck on your pretreatment look. Be open to a whole new approach to hair, until you have more hair and more options. Styl­ish earrings and nice lipstick or lip gloss can make the new look even better.

The little hair you might have can go a long way. It can appear much shorter than it really is because a wig can flatten it. Try shampooing your hair and toweling it dry. Use a little gel or mousse for fullness. If you want to color your new hair, be gentle. Try a temporary dye that washes out after multiple shampoos.

If your wig was long and wearing the wig has been your secret, you might be concerned about shocking people when you stop wearing the wig. Consider having the wig cut shorter to ease the shock, or make the transition when you return from a vacation.

Many women come out of the breast cancer experience with new courage, boldness, and a “don’t sweat the small stuff” approach. This new attitude can lead to a whole new personal look and style.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Reprinted with permission from © 2013

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2013.