'Angels' make knitted breasts for cancer survivors
BENNINGTON -- In a small waiting room at Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center, a basket of knitted bosoms sits with a sign labeled "free."
"These hand-knitted prosthetic breasts are a gift to women who have had a partial lumpectomy," a note card explains, beneath a pink notice pinned to the bulletin board above, announcing that October is the month designated for breast cancer awareness.
Marked with their cup size, the individual breasts are made of light blue, green and pink yarn, some one color, others thinly striped.
"We've been supplying them to patients here for years," said Chief Radiation Therapist Erin Comar, who remembers the gifts being available since she began work there six years ago.
Known to the patients and staff of SVRCC as "Bosom Buddies," the idea to provide soft, comfortable and free prosthetic breasts to breast cancer survivors originally began with a woman in Brunswick, Maine.
Breast cancer survivor and mother of two Chesley Flotten began the "Knitted Knockers" program in 2007, after a friend gave her a knitted breast following her own mastectomy.
Experiencing how much lighter and more comfortable the knitted version was, compared with expensive silicone prostheses, Flotten shared the idea and began knitting for others. Then-owner of a yarn shop, Flotten wrote about the project on her blog and soon began receiving knitted donations from overseas and around the United States.
Today, Knitted Knocker groups are still gathering, and founder Flotten is still quietly receiving packages of carefully knitted prosthetics from around the world, and passing them on to those in need.
"It's a really personal thing, but I think people know, from the website, that I've been there," said Flotten, now cancer-free.
"Not having the ability or the means -- in my mind that's no reason not to have a proper prosthesis," said Flotten, who makes sure survivors and loved ones know they are completely free.
"People are just out, making their groups. They call and email me for advice and ask for help sometimes, I still do that," she said.
Flotten receives hundreds of the prostheses regularly, but each pair will reach a special destination."I can go for a number of weeks without getting anything, and then I'll get a box or a single pair at the perfect time," said Flotten.
Organizing the project mostly on the weekends, Flotten receives requests from people who don't knit, but need a small piece of the miracle she has helped to share.
"The only thing I ask is that you're a survivor," she said.
Recounting a recent experience where she received a letter asking for a size she didn't have, Flotten then opened the mail to find the exact pair needed.
"Another time I was almost out of knockers and all of a sudden an entire box came," said Flotten.
A woman who no longer had health insurance and resorted to duct taping her old prosthesis, a pregnant mother who was not able to afford a silicone prosthesis post-mastectomy, a woman returning to the gym for the first time who wasn't able to wear the uncomfortable plastic mold while exercising -- these are a few of the people who have shared their stories with Flotten, and she responds.
"When you're that low, it's not just knowing that people care, it's knowing that someone else knows what you're going through," said Flotten. "I think it's so important."
Currently enrolled in graduate school pursuing a master's degree in social work, Flotten says she wants to help others. Some might say she has already been admitted to that club.
"We are very much capable of caring for each other, and if we just ask and reach out we can find ways to help others," she said.
Many active groups have formed in southwestern states including Texas and Arizona, where the warmer climates can cause discomfort from silicone prosthetics, or lead to a rash when placed in a bra.
"I also have a lot of people who ask for their mothers, which I think is really lovely," said Flotten.
Knockers made that aren't distributed locally are sent to Flotten, sometimes with a dollar or two included to help cover the cost of shipping them on to women in need.
"I have one person who never puts their name on it so I don't know who they are, but they are always beautifully made," said Flotten.
Locally, nobody is sure who makes the "Bosom Buddies" left at SVRCC.
"I've known women that really liked them," said Comar. "I remember one woman in particular who said they were much more comfortable than anything else she had tried."
Staff in Bennington have seen the woman who stops in to fill the basket periodically, but say they don't know her name.
"We just kind of have a bosom angel," said Comar. "She comes in and drops them off."
According to Flotten: "It's just one of those things where the universe seems to be taking care of people."
Contact Khynna at firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow her on Twitter @khynnakat.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.