Health & Fitness

Wichita group knits prosthetic options for women with mastectomies

Breast cancer awareness ribbon
Breast cancer awareness ribbon File photo

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Knitted Knockers of Wichita.

For avid knitters Kristin Anderson and Lori Marceau, reading a Dear Abby column in The Wichita Eagle about making knitted prosthetic breasts for women was a call to action.

For Sharon Williams, it was a close call with breast cancer that got her involved with the charitable project called Knitted Knockers.

Stitch by stitch, these Wichita women and several other area knitters have provided hundreds of free soft, lightweight prosthesis options for local women and others across the U.S. who’ve had mastectomies.

For some women, the knitted breasts are a temporary solution while undergoing breast cancer treatment and reconstruction. For others, they are a more permanent solution.

According to a 2017 blog on the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, less than half of all women who require mastectomy are offered breast reconstruction surgery, and fewer than 20 percent elect to undergo immediate reconstruction. According to the Knitted Knockers website, more than 50,000 mastectomies are performed in the U.S. annually.

Wichitan Ivy Fairley, who underwent her second mastectomy in 2014, likes wearing the knitted prostheses for her twice-a-week workouts. She underwent her first mastectomy in 1978.

“They’re lighter and they don’t cause me to perspire as much,” said the retired nurse. She can wash them on the delicate cycle, let them air dry and fluff up the polyester fiberfill stuffing if needed for the next time she wears them.

Like some other cancer survivors, Fairley found silicone prostheses are a much hotter, heavier and expensive option. Silicone prostheses can cost as much as $400 a piece, Fairley said. Her knitted pair were provided free by a breast cancer nurse navigator from Via Christi Clinic.

The knitted breasts “don’t put as much pressure on the scar line,” she noted. “A lot of times the scar line remains tender.”

The knitted breasts have other differences compared to silicone options as well: They’re adjustable by removing or shifting the stuffing and they can be worn with any regular bra.

Two women, a breast cancer survivor and another currently battling the disease, talk about taking part in the Komen Race for the Cure. (Sept. 24, 2016)

Call to action

Knitted Knockers was founded by Barbara Demorest, a breast cancer survivor in Bellingham, Wash., after a friend knitted her a prosthesis to wear following her mastectomy. While she didn’t invent the notion of a knitted prosthesis, Demorest created what has become an international organization that provides the knitted breasts for free to women who need them.

Her all-volunteer effort – with knitters donating the materials and their skills while other donations cover mailing expenses – was featured in a Dear Abby column in December 2016. According to the Bellingham Herald newspaper, Knitted Knockers received 6,000 orders in the four weeks after the advice column ran. Before that, the organization had been receiving about 1,000 orders a month.

When Anderson, whose mom had taught her to knit as a child, read the column, she thought, “that sounds like something I can do while watching a movie and help someone,” she said.

She looked up the organization online and downloaded the pattern, which uses “basic stitches but you knit on double-pointed needles,” Anderson explained.

A friend of hers working at Via Christi connected her with Terri Leschuk, a registered nurse and breast cancer nurse navigator with Via Christi Clinic, who has been making the knitted breasts available for free to patients like Fairley for more than a year now. Leschuk emails Anderson with the patients’ sizes and requested colors.

“I’ve knitted 39 knockers for 24 women,” Anderson said earlier this summer.

Knitting circles

Marceau wanted to help local women, too, after reading the column. A few months later, she came across a Facebook request from Williams, asking if any Wichita area knitting groups would be interested in volunteering their time to the Knitted Knockers effort.

After her own breast cancer diagnosis in October 2016 that resulted in a lumpectomy, Williams wanted to become a registered provider for Knitted Knockers, helping fill online orders that the organization receives for women in Kansas. According to Knitted Knockers, the organization acts as a portal to more than 450 knitting groups and providers in 50 states and other countries; currently there are about a dozen Kansas providers listed on its website.

To become a provider, Williams needed knitters – and someone who would be willing to teach her how to knit, too. She posted her request on Facebook community groups like Haysville Happenings and Derby, KS Chatter.

“I called Sharon and said ‘I have knitters,’” Marceau said, referring to the group of knitters she belongs to that meets at 5:30 p.m. Monday nights at Panera Bread at 420 S. Ridge Road, between Maple and Kellogg.

On a recent Monday night at Panera, Marceau, Williams and three other women talked about their volunteer efforts as they knitted or crocheted. Williams likes that they meet in a public place, allowing passersby to stop and inquire about their creations.

“I tend to work on them all the time,” said Marceau. “It’s something you can do while watching a movie. I’m not good at sitting and doing nothing.”

“I’m the same way,” agreed Kathy Chaney, a transplant from Minnesota, as she created the outside knitted shell of a prosthesis with white- and peach-colored yarns. “At first I thought it was kind of a weird thing, but then I read a testimonial online and I was so moved that for the past year and a half that’s all I’ve made.”

While Williams hasn’t made much progress in knitting the prostheses herself – she estimates she made possibly one suitable one so far – she has played a significant role in expanding the Knitted Knockers effort in the Wichita area, serving as a recruiter of knitting groups and individual knitters, as a provider for the Knitted Knockers international organization and local doctors’ offices, and as a contact with area yarn shops.

Williams also works with Via Christi’s Leschuk and provides prostheses to six clinics in Wichita and Andover that serve breast cancer patients. She works with Picket Fences in Wichita, The Creation Station in Newton and iYarn in Winfield that sell the recommended yarns and serve as collection sites for customers who’ve knitted prostheses to help fill Williams’ orders.

Williams recently recruited the Hook and Needle Friends group. which meets at 10 a.m. Wednesdays at the Alford Branch Library at 3447 S. Meridian, to also help supply more knitted breasts.

With a $500 Pay it Forward grant from local law firm DeVaughn James, she’s purchased yarn to provide to her knitters to create the prostheses. Shipping costs are the only expenses reimbursed by the Knitted Knockers organization.

In the past year, her knitters have made about 250 knitted breasts, she estimated.

Sometimes Williams, whose breast cancer recurred this summer, hears back from the women who’ve received a knitted prosthesis.

“It’s so rewarding,” said Williams. “It’s awesome to hear how much the women appreciate and love them.”

Williams’ Knitted Knockers of Wichita group uses the official patterns provided online at knittedknockers.org. For more information, email Williams at shariw146@cox.net or visit the group’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/392022154495755/about/.

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