How a Sports Bra is Keeping Women With Breast Cancer in the Race

The Athleta Empower Bra is a sports bra specifically designed for breast cancer survivors.

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For many breast cancer treatment programs, surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are often accompanied by another prescription: exercise. Staying physically active during cancer treatment has been found to bolster physical and mental health, diminish adverse side effects of treatment, boost anti-tumor activity in the body, and improve outcomes for survivors. Some cancer treatment centers go so far as to offer 5K and sprint triathlon training programs to help cancer fighters play an active role in their treatment and recovery.

For years, Dr. Anne Peled was one of those physicians prescribing exercise. As a runner, triathlete, and surgeon specializing in breast and reconstructive surgery for women who have been diagnosed with cancer, Peled preached the gospel of a good workout, even during cancer treatment. But when she discovered a lump in her own breast that turned out to be cancer, Peled learned firsthand just how important—and how difficult—exercise could be during treatment.

After her diagnosis, Peled committed to running her way through radiation treatments, even on the days she felt fatigued. But as she soon learned, the fatigue wasn’t her biggest obstacle to running—her bra was. “Normal sports bras aren’t made for women who’ve had really any kind of breast surgery,” explained Peled. “So whether it’s a mastectomy, a reconstruction, a lumpectomy, different surgeries, radiation, they add some difficulty to wearing a sports bra. All of a sudden, I was thinking about how did things rub on me on the radiation treatment area, was I getting enough sun coverage, would this affect my surgical scar?”

Finding the perfect sports bra is a tall order for just about any woman, but more so for those with breast cancer. Radiation and chemotherapy can make the skin more sensitive to rubbing and chafing. Post-surgery, patients are often advised not to lift their arms over their heads to protect the incisions on the breast, so putting on a typical sports bra is out of the question. Lumps are sometimes removed without reshaping the breast, leaving a divot in the tissue, or one breast may be removed while the other remains intact. Fit is critical for sports bras, but how do you find a perfect fit when you have two differently-sized breasts?

Peled knew the necessity of exercise during treatment. She also knew the necessity of a good sports bra to make that happen. To marry the two, she approached women’s activewear brand Athleta about designing a bra that would help women stay active through breast cancer treatment and beyond.

“When we’re designing sports bras for women, we’re looking at how we can do that through the whole life cycle, through the good and the bad,” said Casey Lawson, Senior Technical Designer at Athleta. “We wanted to make sure that we were supporting women through their hardest times, and to do that, we had to really think about a different way of designing the sports bra.”

By combining Peled’s personal and professional knowledge with Athleta’s technical savvy, designers were able to come up with a checklist of features needed in a sports bra for breast cancer fighters and survivors: a super soft fabric, adjustable straps for a customized fit, and a front zipper and back hook for easy on/off. The bra not only needed to fit comfortably, but also allow women to be confident in their active pursuits. Research shows that aesthetics are important for women who are undergoing or have undergone breast cancer treatment; over half of women with breast cancer report body image issues and negative self-confidence.

“Asymmetry in bras in shirts and clothes is a huge thing for my patients,” said Peled. “I think it’s one of the major challenges women have, especially now with the whole trend of women just wearing sports bras as tops. A lot of my patients would call me and say ‘When I looked at my sports bra, this side looks a little bigger.’”

Typical bra inserts are triangular or teardrop-shaped, which look out of place compared to the natural shape of the breast in a sports bra. They’re also expensive, heavy, and irritating to the skin during a workout. “The fiberfill or silicone pads that are typically used to fill bras after mastectomy—what a lot of people call ‘chicken cutlets’—are really just so heavy and just not made for exercise,” explained Jolene Danielson, Director of Technical Design at Athleta. “We wanted to think of a different way of doing things, so we worked to develop a foam that was solid all the way through but still lightweight, moisture-wicking, and soft enough to prevent chafing.”

The collective efforts of the design team yielded two innovative products: Athleta Empower, the first-ever sports bra designed for women with breast cancer, and Empower Pads, the first-ever athletic prosthetic bra inserts. They launched both products in October 2017 as part of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month to an overwhelmingly positive response from customers.

 “It was the most inspiring thing that I’ve worked on in my whole career,” said Lawson. “Just seeing how unbelievably happy customers were with the product, we were all crying. It was thrilling to know you’re putting something out in the marketplace that had a real need.”

“For me, running felt like the best part of getting through cancer treatment. Really, truly getting back to something that I love, that made me feel like me again, psychologically made a huge difference,” said Peled. “In my work, exercise comes up every single day with people going through breast cancer. The value of getting a sports bra that lets you feel like yourself, look like yourself, get back to doing what you were doing pre-cancer just cannot be overstated.”

Athleta designers are currently working on expanding the size range of both Empower products to provide options for women with breasts larger than a D cup. They’re also developing a waterproof Empower pad for swimwear and multisport pursuits. “It’s been really fun to take this design and technology to a level where more women are able to benefit from it,” said Danielson. “We want to help women stay active through the whole spectrum, from early surgery all the way through to survivorship.”

Related for Outside+ Members: Supportive Science: The Quest to Build A Better Sports Bra

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