10 Pillows to Use for Comfort During Cancer Treatment and Recovery

It's often your oncology nurse or people who have gone through breast cancer surgery themselves, who can give you the best tips for coping with discomfort during treatment. One of those tips we should pass on is that of little support pillows.

Little support pillows are small, usually around 8 by 11 inches. They must be small enough to fit under your arm, and thin enough to place between your incision or surgical drains and your seat belt in the car. Once you are moving around after surgery, you'll learn just how helpful they are. These pillows can be your constant companion at home, in the hospital, when you go shopping or to church, and when you go to bed at night.

And as an added plus, it is a gift you can give to support a loved one with cancer. If you give a comfort pillow to a friend before her breast cancer surgery, she will be reminded that someone cares about her each step of her journey. Here are 10 ways to use those little pillows!

1. Safety Belt Pillow

Rectangular Pillow for Breast Cancer
Rectangular Pillow for Seat Belt Pressure. Illustration © Pam Stephan

After a lumpectomy, mastectomy, or breast reconstruction, your chest area will be tender anywhere you have incisions. Use a small square or rectangular pillow to place between you and that upper-body seat belt. This comfort pillow will protect you from chafing and will distribute the pressure on your chest.

Add a Velcro loop on one side of the pillow, if you want to secure it to the seat belt while you travel in the car. Make sure the pillow is thick enough to protect your incisions but thin enough so that it doesn't reduce the effectiveness of your seat belt.

2. Armpit Comfort Pillow

Pillow Under Arm
Pillow Under Arm. Illustration © Pam Stephan

Your lymph node status is important—and will be determined by a sentinel node biopsy or an axillary lymph node dissection. Those procedures, while critical to your diagnosis and staging, leave tender scars in an area where you have plenty of nerves. Your skin may be extra tender in the areas where the drainage tubes leave your body as well.

Having a little armpit comfort pillow between your arm and chest can ease the pain of axillary and mastectomy incisions. Use a rounded or rectangular pillow to cushion your armpit area. You can add a shoulder strap to this pillow, so you don't have to carry it all the time.

3. Arm Rest Pillow

Arm Rest Pillow
Arm Rest Pillow. Illustration © Pam Stephan

Armrest pillows are often called chemo, bar, or bone pillows, and may be used several ways. If you're going to be sitting still for a long chemo infusion, it can ease your arm to rest it on one of these forearm pillows.

You could also use this pillow while lying down, to support your arm over your chest. Elevating your arm while resting may ease lymphedema symptoms. Use a bar-shaped pillow under your neck while resting or traveling, to ease muscle strain.

4. Breast Support Pillow

Crest Pillow
Crest Pillow. Illustration © Pam Stephan

After a lumpectomy or breast reconstruction, your breast may feel very tender. Having breast surgery changes the balance of weight on your chest muscles. Until you adjust to your new architecture, you might like to use a crest-shaped pillow to support your breast or your reconstruction until the incisions heal and your muscles adjust. You can also use a crest-shaped pillow to comfort any underarm incisions.

When you are healed from your surgery, you may have periodic expansions in which varying amounts of fluid are introduced into your expanders. If you will be having this done, don't pack your pillows away too soon.

5. Between Breasts

When you've had any kind of breast surgery, your balance changes, and you can really feel that change on your chest. If you sleep on your side, the weight of your breasts on your chest muscles may feel different than it did before surgery.

You might find that tucking a small rectangular pillow between your reconstructed breast and your healthy breast while sleeping helps relieve the muscles being expanded for your breast implant. You'll gradually get used to your new balance, but that little pillow sure helps you get through that transition.

6. Knee Pillow

Just adding a little pillow between your knees as you sleep on your side can ease your lower back. When your back is comfortable, you'll toss and turn less, and may get to sleep faster.

Try using a square or rectangular comfort pillow for your knee pillow. Having some space between your knees might even make sleeping a little cooler when a hot flash hits.

7. Neck Pillow

Travel Neck Pillow
Travel Neck Pillow. courtesy of Amazon

There are so many shapes for neck pillows! These come in bolsters, wraparounds, contoured, and even U-shaped pillows. Find or make one that works for you—a good neck pillow should make sitting and sleeping more comfortable for your neck and shoulders. If you're going to be sitting for a chemotherapy treatment for more than an hour or resting on your back for a good while, use a neck pillow to keep your head, neck, and shoulders properly lined up.

8. Lower Back

Back Pillow
Back Pillow. Illustration © Pam Stephan

Here's another place to tuck that little rectangular comfort pillow—behind your lower back. When you're going to sit or ride for a while, having a little pillow between your waist and the chair will ease and may prevent back tension and muscle strain. When your lower back is properly aligned, you can avoid leg pain (sciatica) from sitting down for long periods.

9. Comfy Seat Cushion

Donut Pillow
Donut Pillow. Illustration © Pam Stephan

Sit on a donut pillow if you have pain in your tailbone (coccyx), a not uncommon occurrence if you've been sitting in a recliner a lot since surgery. The donut hole allows the bottom of your spine to avoid pressure.

This little round hollowed out pillow is also good to use if you're having hemorrhoid pain as a side effect of chemo-induced constipation. If you've never been constipated before, you might experience it now. The drugs often used to prevent chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting are wonderful, but constipation is almost a given.

Donut pillows are even good for hip pain, anal pain, and prostate inflammation. If you have a solid cover for your donut pillow, nobody else will even guess that it has a special purpose!

10. Wonderful Wedge Pillows

Pink WondaWedge Inflatable Pillow
Pink WondaWedge Inflatable Pillow. Photo © Cypress Creek Marketing

Let's say you've just come home from surgery and you must sleep on your back while managing surgical drains and dressings. Use a wedge pillow under your knees and lower legs to elevate them—this flattens your spine and makes you comfortable. Or place a wedge pillow under your head and shoulders, to keep you from turning onto your side.

A good wedge pillow may benefit people with asthma, acid reflux, and snoring problems.

Pillows Provide More Than Support

You can make your own pillows, or a good friend might make these for you. The most useful pillows will be made of machine-washable components, for easy care. These pillows can be sewn, quilted, knitted or crocheted. Personalize a pillow with embroidery, image transfers, and fabric markers. Stuff these little pillows with fiberfill, bamboo batting, quilt batting, microbeads, or buckwheat. Add some herbs (lavender, bergamot, chamomile, or cedar) for comforting aromatherapy.

Bottom Line on Support Comfort Pillows With Breast Cancer

From discomfort in your incision from your seatbelt to hemorrhoids from anti-nausea drug-related constipation, there are a host of ways in which having comfort pillows can ease your discomfort. When we talk about cancer treatment we often focus on things such as the type of surgery you will have or the hair loss you may experience with chemotherapy. Yet there are many small things that can make a difference in your day to day comfort throughout your journey. A comfort pillow is just a little thing—but it can aid recovery and raise your spirits.

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