How do you know what size bra you should be wearing if you’ve never been to a certified mastectomy fitter?

***Keep in mind that I'm no expert, and am only passing along information that is found across the internet and in fitting rooms across the country, along with some mastectomy fit variations that have been found from trial and error after a point was reached where there was nothing more that a professional mastectomy fitter could do for me to solve the remainder of my own fitting issues.***

  Most women have no idea what their true bra size really is, even before mastectomy, but ask them and they’ll tell you they ARE wearing the correct size, they’re just sure of it.  Often, they simply think (and I've been guilty of this, too!) that they don’t look right because they are overweight, or their breasts are too heavy, when a good bra would have done wonders for their appearance and self-confidence.  Tests have shown over and over that approximately 80% of women are in the wrong size bra for their body.  When fitted with the right bra, they are amazed at how much better they look and feel!

A really GOOD mastectomy fitter will guide you not only to the right SIZE bra band and cup for your body, but also to the best STYLE of bra for your shape.  If you’re here, you may have either not been to a mastectomy fitter, or you went but it was not a well-trained, patient fitter and they put you in a bra that doesn’t work well for you.  Fitters can be a very expensive luxury that many cannot afford.  By fitters, I mean certified mastectomy fitters...the person at your local department store may have had all of five minutes training and will generally put you in the wrong size or style of bra.  My local fitters (two truly WONDERFUL ladies that I’ve worked with for years, and I adore them both!) have been a great blessing to me.  However, I know that I may not always have insurance that will allow me to afford to keep seeing them.  Sooner or later, almost everyone needs to get familiar with some of the tricks of the trade.

Maybe your medical insurance doesn’t cover mastectomy fittings, bras, or forms, and you had to figure it out on your own already when you ordered breast forms off the internet, then found they don’t fit your pre-mastectomy bras.  You may have picked out silicone forms at a breast cancer supply 'donation room' by guessing at your what your size should be or feeling you had to just take whatever was available.  There are thousands of women who had to do the same and now need a way to find what sort of bra to get that will fit their forms, since it’s a lot cheaper and easier to change bra sizes than it is to get different forms.   This ‘recipe’ below for sizing may not always work, but it’s a good beginning and typically pretty close to what many fitters will do for you, so get a measuring tape and let’s get started.

Here’s how to get your band size:

Wear your breast forms inside the best fitting bra you currently own, and don’t put on anything more than your bra with the forms in it.  (If you haven't a bra that will work, you may need to have a friend help hold the breast form in place and measure.)  BE SURE TO DO THIS STANDING UP. Put a tape measure around your chest immediately under the bust area, making sure to keep it level and SNUG all the way around you, ask a friend to help if needed. 

It's really difficult to get accurate measurements with your arms anywhere other than down by your side so your muscles won't tense and you'll have too large of a measurement.  (I've found that if you have to, you can stand in front of a large mirror, get the best snug measurement you can, and snug it up about an inch more to allow for tensed muscles.)

Write down the measurement and add 5 inches to the to the number if your measurement is an odd number, or 4 inches for an even number.  (Go to the closest number instead of using a fraction here.)  Bra sizes come in even numbers, so this is how to get a band size that will be available.

This is going to be your band size, so write it down.

Here’s how to find your cup size:

Put the end of a tape measure against your chest in the center (between the breasts, and it’s very important that that it touches your body at the center) then measure over a breast form and around your body to the center of the backbone.  Keep the tape snug.  Now you’ll double this measurement.   (Yeah, I know, you could have just measured all the way around, but when you do that you will tend to squash both 'breasts' which gives you a bad reading, but if you loosen the tape so you’re not squashed, the tape falls down in back, or the forms if you're trying to hold them in place.  Do half and double it, if possible.) 

Once'll get a much better measurement if your arms are down by your side and a friend does the measurement for you, but if you stay relaxed and breathe out, you might can do it.  Again, you MAY have to snug it up just a bit more to allow for your muscles tensing.

This is your bust measurement and you will now compare this measurement to the band size.


The bust and band measurement are the same, cup size is AA.

The bust measurement is one inch larger, the cup size is A.

If the bust measurement is two inches larger, cup size is B

If the bust measurement is three inches larger, cup size is C.

If the bust measurement is four inches larger, cup size is D.

If the bust measurement is five inches larger, cup size is DD.

If the bust measurement is six inches larger, cup size is DDD.

(DD is sometimes called E, and DDD is sometimes called F, it depends on the bra maker.)

 As an example, I’ll do this along with you…. here are my measurements:  Measuring snugly around my chest below the bust, and breathing out, my measurement is 38.  Since that’s an even number, I add 4 inches which makes it 42 for my bra band size. 

Measuring with the tape end touching the center of my chest then up and over a breast form, under the arm, and to the center of the back, keeping the tape level, my measurement is 22, doubling that gives me the number 44 for the total bust measurement.  Subtracting the adjusted band measurement of 42 from the bust measurement of 44 leaves 2 inches, which means my cup size is B.  That makes my bra a size 42B.  Well, look at that! Exactly the same measurement my mastectomy fitter came up with.

Now, it’s EASY to do this, but also EASY to get it wrong, especially if (like me) you have a little ‘fat-roll’ here and there.  Just do your best to get the measurements, and then try on bras close to the size until you find the right one for sure.  No measurement method is perfect, all the time, bodies are just too different, and it only takes a little mistake to get the wrong size, particularly if you're doing this by yourself.  Still, it’ll get you started and fairly close to the size you’ll end up with.  Be aware though, that even taking a deep breath and doing the measurements will be different from NOT taking a deep breath when you do them.  Let your breath completely out before taking a reading.

One more thing to note:  When you do gain weight and need one size up on the band size, your cup size will decrease by one.  For example, at one time my bra size was 40C.  When I had to go up on band size, my new size bra was 42B.  One size UP on the band, will need one size DOWN on the cup, and vice-versa... this will hold true almost always.  And yet...this is the difficult part to same original silicone breast forms fit perfectly in both bra cup sizes. 

You see, your breast forms didn't gain weight with you, they stayed the same, and that's part of it.  The rest of it is simple.  Think about it.  If you're petite and wear a D cup, it's not the same D cup that your friend who is as tall and large as I am.  You could probably use my D cup as a hat.  I could use your D cup as an elbow pad.  Yet, they are both a D cup, proportional to our bodies.  I actually was a DD cup right before my mastectomies, but asked for silicone breast forms closer to my size in a C cup because I felt it was more proportional to me.  When I moved up to a larger band size later and my fitter changed down to a B cup, I couldn't understand it at the time.  Some mysteries are best just accepted, eh?

But Does it Fit?

While the method (in the left column) of choosing your bra size will give you a good general bra size, bra sizes can sometimes vary among different manufacturers the same as ready-to-wear clothing often varies depending on the company that made it and the style, etc… (And you’ve wondered why a size 18 fits you at Walmart but a similar style is called a size 14 in a high-priced store?  It’s called VANITY sizing, dear hearts. 

They think we women are more apt to buy something expensive if we think we’re fitting in a SMALLER size.)  If you try on a bra in a style you like and it doesn’t feel good and fit correctly, you may need to try on a slightly larger or smaller bra to make sure you get the best fit. 

When you buy a new bra, it should fit you at the loosest hooks, the very last ones.  That’s so that as the elastic in the bra wears out over time, you can hook it one or two hooks tighter and make the bra last a little longer.  Some of us have bought bras that fit at the tightest band size, thinking we might gain weight and need the looser settings, but that’s the opposite of how we should buy our bras and will give us a poor fit both now and in the long run.  (Surprised?  I was, too.)

If the back of a bra band rides up, it is too big for you (assuming your straps are not set too tight, of course, see further below about that). The band should be as horizontal as possible all the way around you. 

Look at yourself sideways in a mirror after you’ve worn the bra a few minutes and moved around.  If the back band is riding up with the band hooked on the last hooks, either tighten it up one set of hooks or, preferably, buy a smaller band size.   It should neither be too tight or too loose.  You’ll feel when you have it right and it holds up your forms without being too constrictive. 

(However, if you’re wearing microbead breast forms (see the page 'SEW YOUR OWN BREAST FORMS' to learn how to make them) to reduce the weight, that’s sort of the exception to the rule…you can have your band a little bit more loose because it doesn’t have to hold up but a couple of ounces instead of a couple of pounds.  It only has to be tight enough to keep your band level on your body and to keep your bra cups fitting closely enough to you so that the microbead breast forms will push outwards to fill out the cups properly. I have test-worn a bandeau type bra with NO straps and think that it kept the forms in place better than some bras WITH straps.)

If the band on a new bra is leaving bad red marks on you, then it’s too small a size for you.  If it’s an old one, you’ve more than likely been hooking it up too tightly to make up for the elastic being worn out in the body of the bra.  (Time for a new bra… old bras are like old shoes, when they no longer function well, they’ve outlived their usefulness.) 

The purpose of a bra's elastic sides particularly is to hold up and support either breasts or breast forms snug to our bodies.  With the elasticity gone, it can do neither.  The elastic in the fabric of the entire band area should be strong enough to stretch and move along WITH our bodies while holding the breast forms in place.

Assuming you have a new bra in the correct band size...If your breast-forms bulge out at the top, then the cup size is too small for your current forms. If the material on the cups is too loose and saggy, the cup size is too big for your forms.

THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT TIPS!  The center of your bra should be touching your chest or coming very, very close to it, no more than a pinky-fingertip width away at most.  That was the purpose of starting your measuring tape with it touching that area, instead of measuring your bust size just straight across the bust points.

Before your mastectomies, you may have been used to your breasts causing your bra to sag outwards from your body.  Many bras (made for people with natural breasts) are made with what I would call 'half cups' or ¾ coverage cups so that the upper part of the breast shows cleavage. Please remember that with breast-forms, the forms must be held completely INSIDE of your cups for the cups to hold and separate them, and the edges of the cups should touch your body across the middle and top of the bra.

That’s why mastectomy bras should always be ‘full coverage’ bras, though makers of a few mastectomy styles seem to have forgotten that, grrrr… Otherwise, you will find yourself looking as if you have a uni-breast by the end of the day as your forms slip outside the cups and meet together in the center of your body.  Either that, or the top of your bra will open up, giving people a good view of your scars behind your breast forms.  Not exactly what you want, eh?  Let’s not go there. 

If you’re looking at a photo of a bra you are interested in (possibly a regular one to convert into a mastectomy bra by adding pockets, (see my page called ‘CONVERT A BRA’ for a photo tutorial on how to add mastectomy pockets yourself) and the model in the photo has ANY obvious breast tissue showing above the top of the bra, it is NOT a full coverage bra.  Keep looking. 

Even in photos of true mastectomy bras, they often photograph a model who still has both natural breasts, so be aware that the bra may not look the same on your body.  When the breast is removed, the area ABOVE the breast will usually also be missing tissue and will be more flat than what you're looking at with the model in the photo.  This makes it even more important to have exactly the right cup size, because there's no upper breast tissue to fill in and compensate for the bad fit.

Here’s how a bra is supposed to work:  a properly fitted bra should cover, hold in place, and support your ‘breasts’ even if the straps have fallen down off your shoulders. That’s the easiest way to try out how a new bra fits.  Of course, you don’t want straps falling down all the time, so tighten them ONLY until they stay.  They help the body of the bra hold your forms in place as you lean forward and such, but don’t need to hold the WEIGHT of your forms completely, as you may have once thought.  If they’re digging in and leaving red marks, they are set too tight, and may contribute to your bra band riding up because the straps are pulling it. 

Let’s recap:  Make sure you’re wearing a bra size that fits your body well, and that your old bra isn’t worn out.  Even if one seems to more-or-less fit but it’s still uncomfortable at any area, keep looking for a bra that fits better.  I don’t care how cute the bra is, if it hurts you, the style isn’t worth it.  I know, ladies, we sometimes wear painful shoes because the cuteness quotient convinces us to.  When it comes to a bra after mastectomy, the pain can be signal that the bra can damage your health by it’s tightly constricting sensitive areas where lymph fluids should be flowing. 

No cute bra is worth lymphedema making your arm swell up to gigantic proportions.  Ask any of us who didn’t know about lymphedema beforehand and who now have to wear a lymphedema sleeve at times to compress the fluid out.  Ick.  As my own example again, I now must make EVERY left sleeve somewhat larger than my right sleeves when I sew with patterns, or my left sleeve will be obviously tight while my right sleeve hangs loose.  It’s obvious, and unattractive, and uncomfortable.  I don’t want it to happen to you.

If, no matter what you do, your bra band STILL rides up into your scars, then your body shape has turned all Christmassy.  That’s what I call mine, Christmas tree shaped.  It’s sort of a triangle or cone shape since chemo gave me a narrower top and a wider midsection.  One just can’t get a bra band to stay in place on a  cone shape.  It will slip upwards, more with every move.  That’s how breast cancer surgery and chemo leaves some of us, so the band slides up into a deep scar or hole (missing tissue where lymph nodes were removed), particularly on one side, as the day wears on.  Which then causes my left arm to swell up with fluid.  And hurt.  

If that’s happening with your bra bands, too, there are ways of dealing with it.  The fastest and easiest is to attach a couple of suspender slips (child size if possible) to either end of a piece of elastic.  Clip one end to your bra band and one to the top of your jeans.  It’ll hold it down all day!

If you wear spandex shapewear around your middle, or a tall ‘girdle’ type garment, you can sometimes pin your bra band to the top of that and it’ll stay down, or safety-pin one end of a piece of elastic to your bra band and the other end to your shaper garment.  (Or use a longer piece and pin it to your jeans until you can find some suspender clips to stitch to the elastic.)

What I prefer to do to all my new bras, is to attach a 12” wide ‘tube’ of spandex fabric to the bottom of my bra band (imagine a tube top, only worn much lower, if that helps you visualize it).  Sewing a tube the same size around as my bra band when it's closed, and sewing the top of it to the bra with a stretch stitch, will keep the band held down comfortably, as well as holding in your 'muffin top' at your middle. (*I use a three-step zigzag stitch.  Look on my page titled BRA BAND OUCH FIX to find a photo-tutorial on how to do this.)

From then on, you simply step into your bra and pull it up over your hips and up to your chest, tugging the tube back down into place over your tummy.  Don't worry, it won't hurt most bras. I've been putting wide tummy bands on my bras for years.

Whatever you have to do to get a comfortable bra, and one to stay in place, please keep trying until you come up with a solution that works for you.  Just because something I’ve suggested doesn’t work for you doesn’t mean that someone else hasn’t come across your particular problem and solved it.  Please don’t give up!  :^)