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5 Fashion Tips for Cancer Patients (And Others With Chronic Illness)

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A year ago, my mother was dying of pancreatic cancer. She'd lost a lot of weight. She'd changed shape. Sometimes, she was bloated. Her old clothes didn't fit right, which reminded her of how drastically and quickly her life had changed. She may have thought, Why bother getting new clothes when I won't be around long to wear them?

2013-09-15-LeahyDerbyDay.jpgBut getting showered and dressed made her feel better. And she wanted to look good for visitors and even for trips to the doctor's office for chemotherapy treatments. Not getting dressed can make a person feel even more lethargic and downtrodden. So the family adjusted our assumptions about fashion.

Seasons don't matter.

If you're sick, wear what you like. Wear whatever you want to wear, whatever makes you happy or comfortable. Wear something old that brings back memories. Wear something new that doesn't seem like you at all. If you're caring for someone who's seriously ill, encourage him or her to make choices about what to wear. Rules don't matter.

If it's October and you want to wear white, do it. If you've lost your hair, get several hats, make sure they don't feel scratchy on your scalp and wear them wherever you want. Or get scarves and watch YouTube videos about how to tie them. Or go boldly bald anywhere you please. If you feel cold, wear a sweater no matter the ambient temperature. Soft fleece hat in July? That's thinking outside the box.

With medical costs often an unknown in the midst of a long-term illness, money may be a concern, but you may find deep discounts on last season's leftovers. If you like something, don't worry about when it was "in."

Buttons matter.

Pulling a shirt overhead can be an exhausting task for someone with chronic illness or pain. Donning a turtleneck could wipe someone out for the day. A shirt with buttons may be easier to put on and off. Buttons also allow the doctor or nurse quick and discreet access to a port for chemo treatment or IV fluids or just to use a stethoscope.

However, patients on chemo may lose feeling in their fingers and have trouble buttoning a shirt on their own. People with arthritis may also struggle with buttons, snaps, and clasps. Bigger buttons help and others' hands may help more.

Necklines matter.

Sometimes, a patient with a port may want to wear something with a big neck opening -- perhaps a boat neck -- so that she doesn't have to remove her shirt for a chemo treatment. Other times, she may want to wear something that covers the port so it's not noticeable to others. Short sleeves or 3/4-length sleeves may be a good option for days of blood pressure checks and blood draws.

Sensations and needs may change quickly, so have different options. Sometimes something around the neck will feel cozy, whereas the same outfit on another day -- or later that same day- - may feel constricting. Try layers. Try scarves. Try something different. We bought my mother a bright sheer top with a wide neckline, a poncho cut, and a camisole underneath. She rolled her eyes when we pulled it out of the bag -- it wasn't her style. But when she tried it on, she felt light and pretty and went to the mirror. Thumbs-up!

Waistbands matter.

People with cancer often lose a lot of weight, sometimes very quickly. Patients with extreme neuropathy from chemo may not notice if their pants fall down and patients using walkers may not be able to pull their pants up on their own. Illnesses that affect the abdomen, like pancreatic, liver and colon cancers or Crohn's disease, can cause bloating. Finding clothes that fit can be difficult as weight and sensations shift. Belts may help adjust the size of pants. It's okay if the waist bunches a bit. Suspenders can take pressure off the waist. One friend with colon cancer looked and felt good in maternity pants.

For my mother, anything the least bit tight around the waist was uncomfortable and could lead to nausea. We tried drawstrings, but they never sat quite right. So my sister went out and bought a dozen different pairs of pants -- different styles, different colors, different sizes -- with different elastic waistbands. A wider, stretchier elastic seems a good bet, but it depends on where it sits. Mom, as if she were Goldilocks, tried on all of them to determine which was just right. My sister returned the others and got more of the one that fit. If it works, get an extra. And leave the tags on, in case things change quickly.

Not getting dressed? Jammies are fashionable!

Some days, a cancer patient -- or, say, someone with chronic back pain -- doesn't want to get out of bed. It's time to treat pajamas, nightgowns and robes as high fashion. Redefine not getting dressed as nightlife fashion. Look for sales and stock up. Buy more than you think you need. Try new styles. Bed jackets are great -- they feel fancy and nostalgic and keep you a little warmer. Men may resist a nightshirt but may feel comfortable once they try it. Have more than one robe, and more than one pair of slippers, so that on days when you feel lacking in control, you can decide to wear something else.

Invest in sheets. A person sheds tens of thousands of skin cells a day, so if you spend a couple of days in bed, change the sheets. Invest in fun sheets. We bought Mom some zebra-striped sheets that she liked but that gave others a headache. Invest in soft sheets. Oprah likes t-shirt sheets; some folks recommend a high thread count; others say that, once you've tried bamboo, you'll never go back to cotton. Invest in sheets that can be bleached, or go ahead and bleach old sheets when the occasion calls for it. Think of changing the sheets as getting dressed to the nines, a fresh start to the day.

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