By Josh Saunders
A cancer survivor is knitting artificial breasts for mastectomy survivors and now thousands are made each month.
Barbara Demorest, 65, from Bellingham in Washington, USA, had her left breast removed after discovering she had cancer five years ago.
To return to normal life as quickly as possible, she planned to have a reconstruction immediately after surgery, but couldn’t due to complications.
Devastated, she struggled to be in public and only left the house while wearing a loose-fitting jacked with a rolled-up sock in her bra.
She discovered ‘knitted knockers’ online and says her life changed when her friend lovingly made one for her.
The gran-of-four launched www.knittedknockers.org – an organisation that connect knitters with breast cancer survivors to produce the prosthetics.
Now Barbara’s group alone distributes over a thousand knitted knockers a month, all over the world.
They are one of a total of 250 groups in 15 countries, including the US and the UK.
Barbara, founder and president of the charity, said: “When I was told I had breast cancer, I was really concerned about my health, but was also worried about my appearance.
“I hoped I wouldn’t need a mastectomy, because I didn’t want people to look at me and avert their eyes, but I did.
“I didn’t want people to think of me as ‘Barb with cancer’, I just wanted to be normal and so I chose not to tell anyone other than my family.
“Due to complications from the surgery I couldn’t have my breast reconstructed straight away and couldn’t have a prosthetic for six weeks. That was the first time I cried, I just wanted to be normal.
“My doctor told me about the knitted knocker and a friend knitted it for me, as soon as I got it I put into my bra – it was beautiful, soft, light and wonderful.
“Until then whenever I was outside my home I always had a loose-fitting jacket and a rolled-up sock stuffed into my bra.
“It helped me to reengage with life again and made me feel like I could get a hug without feeling self-conscious.
“I knew they needed to be made available in doctors’ offices where women could select their own at such a vulnerable time after surgery.
“Since then I’ve been working to get them into hospital and clinics by assisting groups to provide knitted knockers to their communities all over the world.”
Barbara started her online non-profit organisation five years ago.
She supplies the resources for people to set up their own groups, instructional videos, knitting patterns and more.
Barbara said: “We are equipping people to distribute them out all over the world.
“Our patterns have been downloaded over 390,000 times and our video tutorials have been viewed a quarter of a million times.
“No one makes money from it, they make it because they care and that means a lot, knowing that a complete stranger cares at such a very vulnerable time.”
Barbara believes that having individuals produce the knitted knocker is one of the special parts of the service.
She said: “We could manufacture effectively, but we would lose one of the most important things as a recipient, which is that a knitted knocker was made by someone who cared.
“People like Phyllis, who made mine and delivered it to me in a Victoria’s Secret bag.
“It makes you realise you are not battling this alone and it has been specially made for you.”
There are over 50,000 mastectomies performed each year in the USA and 90% may wear prosthetics for a while.
Barb sees knitted knockers as an alternative to traditional prosthetics that can cost up to $800 (£650) and are heavier than the groups handmade creations.
Barb said: “Many women aren’t happy with breast prosthetics as they can be hot, very heavy, expensive and need a specialist bra to hold them.
“This personal gift of a soft, light, knitted knocker can be worn in a normal bra and is a wonderful solution for many women. The demand is huge.”
The non-profit group does not charge for their knitted knockers and say they spend over $2,000 (£1,600) a month posting them across American and the rest of the world.
Barb added: “We will mail them anywhere in the world where there isn’t a group already operating, we want every woman to have access to them.”
She recently returned from a trip to Rwanda where 30 women were trained to produce the lightweight prosthetics and donated materials.
While there, she met with the Minister of Health and the Breast Cancer Initiative of East Africa (BCIEA) to help promote breast awareness and support throughout Rwanda.
Barbara said: “I was told that breast cancer was a taboo subject in east Africa and it’s believed to be a terrible curse to have your breasts cut off.
“Consequently, women don’t seek treatment and don’t talk about mastectomies despite it being a main form of treatment.
“Even when told it’s your breast or your life, people would walk away, but the doctor believes if they could offer these it could revolutionise their breast cancer.
“I was told that a lot of the women wouldn’t wear the traditional prosthetics as they are hot, heavy, sticky, and rats and insects eat them, additionally they are not the same skin colour.”
Barb believes the Knitted Knockers group are a way to make a significant difference in a woman’s life with their skills and talents.
She said: “One 96-year-old lady in a retirement home loves making the knitted knockers and gets the other ladies there to make them too.
“I think it’s incredible, knowing our group has helped a lady of 96 regain purpose and the ability to make a difference by making a knitted knocker out of love.
“Another lady told me that since losing her husband years before, she had been grieving terribly but joining our group and realizing she could still make a difference by producing knitted knockers helped her.”
Barb suggest three different ways people can get involved:
1) To knit or crochet the knitted knockers
2) Share their website through social media
3) Make a donation
For information, to get involved or to donate visit: www.knittedknockers.org