Any woman who’s undergone breast-reduction surgery—or who is contemplating it—knows the number 1 reason to downsize: to get rid of pain.
Carrying around a pair of big, big boobs can cause back and shoulder pain, shortness of breath, numbness and tingling in the arms and hands. Running, alas, exacerbates all of those problems.
“The most common reason to get breast reduction is back pain,” says Marci A. Goolsby, M.D., primary care sports medicine physician at the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, “which is particularly true if you’re doing sports.”
And though sports bras have improved markedly over the past decade or so—hallelujah!—there are still the issues of thick straps digging into shoulders and sweat accumulation causing bloody chafing. Ouch.
And also, not for nothing, there’s the sad truth of how some people can make a big-busted woman feel about running (or any exercise, for that matter).
“Honestly, it was embarrassing to be that well-endowed,” says Bonnie Hancock, 52, of Cleveland, Tennessee, who had reduction 19 years ago. “People—well, men, really—making jokes about, ‘You’re going to give yourself a black eye!’ Har-har.”
At 5’8’’, Bonnie wore an ill-fitting 34E bra because “I refused to buy anything bigger.” She ran in two sports bras from which she has permanent indentations in her shoulders. “It was impossible to find tops and bras that fit and offered support,” she says. The numbness her heavy breasts caused in her arms made her think she was having a heart attack. She sought medical advice; breast-reduction surgery was deemed a medical necessity and fortunately was covered by insurance.
To run with her 36F rack, Carrie Seningen, of Manassas, Virginia, who stands just 4’10’’, had to strap on three bras. “I don’t miss those days,” she says. She suffered excruciating back pain.
“I went to physical therapists, I went to a chiropractor, nothing was working,” Carrie says. “Finally, I saw a surgeon, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, we can solve this.’”
Carrie’s surgery was in 2002. Now a 42-year-old facilities manager, she is grateful to run without pain, but cautions other BAMRS contemplating reduction surgery to respect the process.
Taking a load off your chest is a big deal.
Breast reduction surgery removes excess breast fat, glandular tissue, and skin to achieve a more proportionate size and reduce pain associated with excessively large breasts, which actually has an official term—macromastia.
“It’s a pretty traumatic surgery,” Carrie says. “The post-surgery pain was pretty significant. I was bruised for weeks.”
At the time Carrie’s kids were 1 and 3. “Mommy couldn’t do much,” she says. “I couldn’t lift the kids, or vacuum, or even use the bathroom without my husband’s support. I needed round-the-clock care for about nearly two weeks.” Which is hard when you’ve got a household with toddlers.
It took six weeks for Carrie’s pain to subside. Bonnie, who went down to 34C, started running a little at a time about three months after her surgery.
Every woman’s story will be different.
“Clearance from your surgeon is the number one issue,” says Dr. Goolsby. “You need her to tell you when the tissues are healed enough for you to take on impact sports.”
No, really, you have to wait. “The risk of running before your surgeon has cleared you is opening the wound, opening the incision,” Dr. Goolsby says. “You may look at your incision and think that it is perfectly healed, but there’s a potential for going out too early and damaging the tissues deep inside.”
But how lonnnnnng do you have to wait? There’s no easy answer. “Your surgeons are waiting to see as well,” says Dr. Goolsby. “They might be able to say, ‘I think you’ll be able to run in [blank] weeks,’ but they will still want to see you first.”
And this seems kind of obvious, but it bears repeating: You’ll need new sports bras!
“Your DD isn’t going to fit right,” says Dr. Goolsby. “It’s like sending a patient to get a good pair of running shoes. There are different levels of support. You have to try on what feels supportive and comfortable for you. You may want different sports bras for different activities. You have to think about, ‘What’s my current breast size and what is comfortable?’”
Carrie, now a 34C, learned this by trial and error herself. “Even though I had a reduction, I still needed the right bra,” she says. “You have to take care of your breasts after surgery, or they won’t stay looking as pretty. I bought a bra from [low-cost big-box store]. And a friend who is a marathoner said, NO! She took me to get a more-supportive sports bra from a specialty retailer, and I couldn’t believe the difference. It was liberating! Time came off my pace. How crazy is that? A bra can do that!”
Today, Bonnie Hancock, a retired elementary school principal, has created a life around running: She has completed 30 marathons, many half-marathons, and an Ironman triathlon. She’s a member of the 50 States club. She and her husband travel to races. They raised their kids, now 21 and 25, as runners.
“I look at all the friendships and the life we have built. I wouldn’t have stuck with running because it was too painful and uncomfortable,” Bonnie says. “After the surgery, I was so much more comfortable in my own skin, more confident, and no more numbness and pain.”
Was it worth it, Bonnie? “Oh my goodness, YES!”