Swimming can be great exercise following surgery for breast cancer, like a mastectomy or lumpectomy. But for some people, returning to the pool after a strenuous, appearance-altering surgical procedure can be difficult. Putting on a swimsuit can raise difficult feelings about how someone’s body has changed from breast cancer surgery, so MyBCTeam members encourage each other to find ways to enjoy their trips to the pool or beach following breast cancer surgery.
First things first: You may wonder if you can swim following surgery — and if so, when. It is always best to ask your surgeon, oncologist, or health care provider how long you should wait before doing certain activities, including swimming, after you have had surgery. That said, you should wait to go in the swimming pool, ocean, or hot tub at least until the incisions on your surgical site have healed, if not longer. How long you should wait will depend on the type of surgery you had, as well as how you’re recovering and your general fitness level.
Your oncology specialist may also advise against swimming during breast cancer treatment. Chemotherapy reduces your immune system’s ability to fight off infections, leaving you at a higher risk from bacteria in water. Radiation therapy can also make the skin more sensitive to chemicals found in pool water, like chlorine, and lead to irritation.
While swimming may feel great, the prospect of putting on a bathing suit after breast cancer surgery can be upsetting. “Body image is hard,” said one MyBCTeam member who underwent a double mastectomy without reconstruction. “I go to the gym, and I feel so insecure.” “I am just uncomfortable with my body shape,” another member shared.
Difficulty finding a swimsuit that fits your post-surgery body can add to insecurity. “No swimming suits fit,” wrote a member. “I just wear an exercise bra and tight shorts. So much for my sexy body.” Another member wrote, “As if bathing suit shopping wasn’t hard enough already (for me, at least). Now, I have to be aware of covering up things like radiated skin, scars … ”
Support from family and other MyBCTeam members helps people who’ve undergone breast cancer treatment become more comfortable with the physical changes they’ve experienced. “When we were at the beach, I was so nervous about having a swimming suit on due to the fact you could see my scars,” one member wrote. “My daughter said to be proud of them. It shows that you are a fighter and a survivor of breast cancer. She has really helped me through this.”
One MyBCTeam member encouraged their teammates with a similar message: “My scars are part of my story and so far survival. Our breasts don’t define us any more than the size of our feet.” Another member wrote, “I think you should proudly strut your stuff in whatever bathing suit makes you smile, because (A) you’re insanely beautiful — scars and all — and (B) the only person who will be aware of that scar is you.”
Swimming is a great way to fit some exercise into your routine. It can also help you build strength before, during, and after surgery. As one MyBCTeam member wrote, “I spent yesterday running errands and swam a little in the pool. The muscles under the surgery area needed to be built up.” Another member shared, “Swimming works all muscles, and because of buoyancy, one doesn’t hurt themselves. … Now that I have more time, I am going to try swimming and aqua fit classes.”
One member rejoiced when they were able to return to their favorite exercise: “Today, I went swimming, and I can actually do laps again! My form is lopsided (nerve damage from mastectomy), but it’s fun. I feel grateful that I can do this stuff again.”
Some MyBCTeam members even find that swimming helps them recover from surgery. “I have found a great way to help with chest tightness and stretches six months post double mastectomy, no reconstruction. Swimming!” a member shared. “It’s made a world of difference.” Research has also suggested that moderate exercise — and swimming, in particular — can help improve lymphedema (lymph node swelling) and seroma (fluid accumulation), both of which can occur after breast cancer surgery.
Being comfortable in a swimsuit — with or without breast reconstruction, breast augmentation, or breast implants — takes time. “I wore a swimming boob the first couple of times I went swimming,” wrote one member. “Now, I just go without it. I feel a bit uncomfortable, but my husband tells me to think of it as a ‘teaching moment’ if anybody asks.”
Another member despaired, “I’m looking to buy a swimsuit for this coming summer season, and I’m already beyond frustrated at trying to find one. Do they not make attractive suits for ladies like me who haven’t had reconstruction and aren’t into using prosthetics but who wish to look pretty and feminine and still be confident?” Another member wrote, “Bathing suit shopping is bad enough … bathing suit shopping after a mastectomy just adds salt to the wound.”
Luckily, there are many swimwear options designed specifically for people who have undergone breast cancer surgery. Many include special pockets to hold silicone breast forms or other breast prostheses. “Thankfully, Lands’ End has some nice looking mastectomy tops,” said one member. Another popular swimwear brand with built-in breast prosthesis pockets is Amoena.
One member offered the following advice for finding post-surgery-friendly bathing suits: “Google mastectomy shops in your area — they sell lots of swimsuits now, along with the bras/tops, etc. They are made to hold the prosthetic — you can hardly tell.” Another option, shared by another member, is “regular bathing suits that have a seam around the whole breast area (so when you put the piece in, it will stay in the specific area for the breast) and a small slit on the side to put the prosthetic in.”
If you do decide to wear breast prostheses, one member offered some guidance: “Make sure they are well secured in your suit. I once read about a ‘foob’ that liberated itself during a water aerobics class. I kept waiting for that to happen during a water aerobics class I occasionally attend.”
Don’t be too embarrassed if something like this happens to you, though. As this member pointed out, “Given that it’s a class of 24 women, I’m sure there are BC survivors among them.”
On MyBCTeam, the social network and online support group for those living with breast cancer, members talk about a range of personal experiences and struggles. Swimming after breast cancer surgery is one of the most discussed topics.
Can you relate? Did you enjoy swimming after breast cancer surgery? Did putting on a swimsuit make you feel self-conscious? Share your thoughts in the comments below or by posting on your Activities page.