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The Trials of the Lingerie Aisles - Buying Bras after Breast Cancer

21/06/2016 12:07 | Updated 21 June 2016

I credit Julie Walters with making me love matching underwear. Watching her on a zip wire in "She'll be wearing Pink Pyjamas" once convinced me to book myself on a women-only Outward Bound course. The experience included an "expedition" and I was buddied-up with a woman celebrating her 40th Birthday. There were many moments to treasure including drinking whisky from hipflasks in our tent and, too lazy to venture outside, accidentally pissing into my own walking boots. But perhaps most memorable was the moment when my tent-mate slipped into a fast running river, weighed down and flipped over like a tortoise at a waterpark by her heavy rucksack, she was totally drenched by the time we fished her out. Shivering, she quickly removed her sodden fleece and zip-off walking trousers to reveal the most beautiful matching set of jewel coloured underwear. This I remember. This was the most stylish thing I had ever seen. Since then I only truly feel well dressed and date-ready if my bra and knickers are of the same hue and pattern. It is remarkable how much confidence good under garments bestow on the wearer.

My love of coordinated lingerie is perhaps only one step away from my Mother's entreaties to wear clean pants in case of an accident, even though I would hazard a guess that just before impact it's not just brakes that skid in any road traffic accident. More importantly, my attachment to clean and matching smalls works wonders for my confidence in moments leading up to a bit of bedroom action, even if the gentleman's subsequent fully-focussed performance suggests he is likely oblivious to a greying gusset or slack elastic.

Moments that have brought me to tears during and beyond my cancer treatment have often been linked less to the real and present fear of the disease and more often revolve around matters of vanity, body-confidence and sense of one's self image. Two tearful moments particularly stick in my mind. The first was a Saturday evening spent alone, bald, in front of the telly shortly after my mastectomy. I was watching "Strictly Come Dancing" and it made me weep. In fact I sobbed my heart out and couldn't stop til dehydration set in. It was nothing to do with a "C" list celebrity with poor posture. It was the sight of those strappy dresses and cleavage. I realised I would never lose a Hobnob crumb between my breasts again. And I would likely never wear a strapless dress. I could now only dream of being a sex object, of men I could shun for failing to establish eye contact and talking to my tits. I know I was being dramatic and my previously sun damaged crinkly cleavage, coupled with my bingo wings, had possibly already put paid to my boob tube wearing days. But it hurt. I blame no one.

However, the second tearful tantrum occurred in the lingerie department of a well-known store. And I believe steps could be taken by retailers to avoid such distress. After all, many of them take great pleasure in building their brands on the back of their support for breast cancer charities. I had ventured out for my first purchase of a "post-surgery" bra. It was a big store, in London's West End, and yet the tiny section of post-surgery bras was tucked away in a corner requiring me to search through each and every aisle of the beautiful, colourful creations on offer for the average two-titted women (although us surgically-reduced women make up a not inconsiderable market - I think in 2012 the NHS recorded around 23,000 women having mastectomies). On arrival at the hidey-hole of "pocketed" bras I found my choices were restricted to white, black and "nude" (whose nude flesh precisely, is another question). In an attempt to stay positive and, in search of the more exciting stock I had seen advertised on their website, I sought the advice of a sales assistant who confirmed that "oh yes we do have a much wider selection of bras on offer Madame, but only online". It seems that when we are most in need of a bra fitting we are expected to stay indoors and try things on in the privacy of our own homes so as not to scare shop staff. Unperturbed I moved on to another store. Again, I was required to search for considerable time amongst the treasure trove of bras to adorn the disease-free until I found the mastectomy collection. And lo, I did spy a coloured creation. Things were looking up. But my excitement was short lived. Helpfully there was a sign indicating that there were "matching briefs", however the store didn't see fit to display said coordinating briefs alongside the bras. At this point I was to be directed, like a diabetic in a sweet shop, past the row upon row of beautiful bras and lovely lingerie no longer available to me. It was at this point I burst into tears.

Since my early upsetting and disappointment-filled post-treatment shopping days I am more hardened to the trials of the underwear aisles. I am prone to tears of joy on the discovery of more than three colour options in a well signposted post-surgery collection. Sewing in pockets to an ordinary bra might be a feat of engineering beyond the scope of the average retailer within their price range, but surely it takes little innovation to give us greater colour choices?

How our treatment makes us feel about ourselves matters. I know that the priority is to rid us of cancer. But for many of us the changes to our bodies and to our looks is distressing and our "smalls" become a very BIG thing.

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