Who We Are: Sewing for Surgery

I have always been at the top end of RTW sizes in shops, and that was one of the reasons I started sewing almost a decade ago. Sewing helped me feel more confident with my body once I learned how to do a FBA to make patterns work for me.

But then… Nearly 3 years ago I got diagnosed with breast cancer and had to come to terms with a lot of physical changes: my weight fluctuated during chemotherapy, and then I had surgeries to prepare for. I had a double mastectomy with DIEP reconstruction (where the breasts are created using fat and tissue from the stomach), so I woke after surgery with a swollen chest and torso and a painfully tight and flat stomach. Approximately 1kg of tissue was removed from each breast (including up to the underarm) so I’m assuming a similar amount of my stomach was taken to replace it.

It was quite strange knowing my body would be about to change and planning a wardrobe for post-surgery, and here are some things I learned:

  • Knits are your friend. Comfy secret pyjamas are forgiving and comfy to wear. 
  • Wraps and ties will let you adjust the fit day by day. I lived in wrap dresses for a month after my big op with a vest top underneath. You might also want to tie things higher or lower to avoid scars or dressings.
  • Simple styles are best for adjusting later on. I’ve been able to refit simple skirts easily, but slanted pockets and panels with topstitching are much more effort. I had a pair of trousers and took in the side and centre back seams as much as I could, however the proper fly front with top stitching couldn’t be unpicked easily – if they had a side zipper I probably could have saved them.
  • Adjustments aren’t just about the circumference measurement. Things like bust apexes can change and even if the measurement is correct, where the darts point can make the fit totally different. Princess seams with generous seam allowances might give you more ways to adjust things in future.
  • Posture changes the way a garment looks. I couldn’t stand straight for weeks so was walking hunched forward, which caused lots of strange hems.
  • There were some garments I had to admit I couldn’t save, and it was time to give them a new home. I kept a couple of my favourite pieces I couldn’t bear to part with, with the plan to review them in a year or two.

Update: This global pandemic happened and my planned surgery to tweak a few things and make some nipples (a fascinating process to take flat skin and make it 3D) got postponed. Until I had made the decision in February I had spent months constantly looking to see how noticeable the asymmetry was to decide whether it was worth another procedure, but weirdly as soon as the decision was made and the operation was booked I stopped noticing the problems; I suppose my mind knew the decision was done and didn’t have to obsess any more! Assuming that making nipples will be way down the list of surgical priorities I’ve accepted that it will happen when it happens, so I need to sew for the body I have right now.

I’ve spent all the extra free time being in lockdown gave me (as someone without dependents) to actually toile and tweak patterns multiple times. I also did an exercise program with a cancer-rehab specialist trainer, as I still have shoulder stiffness from surgeries and the joys of medical menopause giving me more padding around the waist (I am no longer as pear shaped as I used to be). Without sounding too cheesy, seeing the Covid-19 death counts does make me grateful that I had such a well researched illness that could be treated, so I try to be thankful for the things my body can still do regardless of what it looks like.

Alison is an early years teacher living in London, England. She shares her sewing on Instagram @alibobs_sews and occasionally thinks she should return to the blog she abandoned 6 years ago.