Women who've endured the trauma of mastectomies are getting a true pick-me-up thanks to a rare and close-knit community of crafters.
On a night in June 2014, Rimma Ratner lay in a hospital bed, fighting for her life. Four months earlier, she’d had a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction, and once her body healed enough she submitted to a hysterectomy. It was all part of the fairly common procedure to eradicate her cancer—until her body had had an allergic reaction to the bond holding the new incision shut.
“I was begging the doctors to give it 12 hours for the antibiotics to work; not to take out my implants until then,” Ratner said. “The doctor said he couldn’t. I only had two hours to live if we didn’t make a move.”
Going through cancer is like having your oldest friend betray you: This vessel that is your body, that has been yours alone since you were born, that has been with you longer than anyone or anything, has suddenly become foreign and treacherous. It terrifies me, because cancer runs thick in my bloodline—I have seen so many of my relatives go through it, and even lost some to it. I carry the BRCA-I mutation, which gives me an 87 percent chance of developing cancer, too. Many people with cancer put their dreams, indeed their lives on hold as they concentrate their energy on saving themselves through treatments that can be debilitating and draining and leave you feeling downright depressed.
Having already lost so much of her identity through cancer-fighting regimens and surgeries, including a failed reconstruction, Ratner’s world crumbled each time she saw her new form. She couldn’t get used to her new look, so when women in one of her support groups started talking about a knitted prosthetic alternative, Ratner went all in. She immediately joined a group online who made something called Knitted Knockers and sent in her request.
“When I opened the package and realized what was inside, I actually cried,” Ratner said. “I put them on for the first time, and they were so comfortable and comforting.”
Lumpectomies and mastectomies are serious surgeries that remove large areas of skin, muscle and tissue in hopes of also removing all cancerous cells. Recovery time from such surgeries varies, but it’s not recommended to wear any type of heavy prosthetic for six to eight weeks afterward. Knitted prosthetics, however, can be worn two weeks after surgery due to their soft exterior and weightlessness on the scarred skin, according to users. For women who choose not to go with eventual reconstruction, finding underwear to fit their new figures can add frustration to pain. Most bras come with underwires, which can irritate the sensitive post-operative area, and even those without can ripple and bulge in unsightly ways when not filled correctly by a breast that used to be there. The psychological effect this has can be hard to take for some women.
The knitted prosthetic usually comes with the outer breast shell, which is made of yarn with a slit toward the back where they can add or remove stuffing. The stuffing—most often polyester, but sometimes cotton or other materials—comes in a separate bag. Depending on which distributor or charity women order from, the knitted breasts also may come with weighted pouches that look like the silicone packs found in new purses, which are used to keep the lightweight yarn anchored in the bra so it doesn’t inch up. For added stability, women can easily pin the prosthetic fabric to the bra. The bras range in size, from AA to F, and a wide array of colors.
“The skin tones are the most popular,” said Sharon Loyd, founder of Bosom Buddies, in Arkansas. “We also do shades of pink and peaches, all the way through to dark browns. And if someone wants a purple one, we can make do that, too.”
The knitted prosthetics may be made of yarn, but under clothing, they look and move like breasts. Women who have undergone mastectomies can slip them on when the occasion calls for it without feeling any weight or discomfort that typically comes with more expensive prosthetic alternatives. Knitted breasts allow women to maintain complete control over their experience with their bodies. If they choose to represent breasts, they can do so easily and quickly. If they choose to go without, there is no pain or time-consuming process in taking them off.
Ratner is using hers as her body heals from infection before trying another reconstruction, but many women choose not to surgically reconstruct their breasts after lumpectomies or mastectomies. If they wish to retain their shape, these women can buy special mastectomy bras with pockets in the back so that they can slip in external prosthetics. Most of these prosthetics are made of silicone or saline, and breast cancer patients often complain about how uncomfortable they can be—they’re heavy, and they get hot after awhile. Knitted breasts remain cool and light regardless of season or activity, and many women say they would use them regardless of the cost because they are so comfortable. The women say with knitted prosthetics they can almost forget they’re wearing them.
Detachable silicone and saline external prosthetics can cost anywhere from $150 to $400, and surgical implants start at $3,500, and not all insurance plans defray the cost. And both silicone and saline implants can burst or leak over time. Knitted breasts, however, are free for many women, through Knitted Knockers, Bosom Buddies, and Georgia’s Breast Friends, among other organizations throughout the country and world. And of course yarn cannot burst, and according to the women who use them, they don’t look bumpy or lumpy, even over time. The women say outsiders cannot tell the yarn prosthetics from more traditional alternatives.
Director of Knitted Knockers, Fred Neal, said his organization has shipped more than 5,000 free knitted breast implants to women all over the U.S., and in recent years Knitted Knocker groups have sprung up in various countries, including Germany, South Africa, Australia, and Finland.
“Having breast cancer and mastectomy can change not only how people view you, but how you view yourself,” Neal said. “These give women a chance to regain something that they had lost.”
Most of these charity organizations start with a single woman, a single story. Beryl Tsang, owner of Tit Bits, calls herself “a rowdy knitter.”
“I had breast cancer, and I had the surgery,” she said. “Soon after, there was an event going on, and I needed to wear a low-cut dress, so I got out my knitting needles and made myself a tit.”
That was ten years ago, and Tit Bits has been going strong ever since. Tsang made a pattern for knitted breasts and published it for free online. In fact, both Knitted Knockers and Bosom Buddies use a variation of Tsang’s pattern. Through her group, various knitting circles make and send Tit Bits at cost to women with need for them, but Tsang’s goal is for women to be able to knit them for themselves or their friends at will.
“I have a real belief in women who craft,” she said. “Breast cancer is very medical, and it’s a killer, but it’s really important to me that at some point we have a way of owning this process and honoring our experience.”
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