‘Knitted Knockers’ for breast cancer survivors

Knitters team up nationwide to provide inexpensive, comfortable prostheses
By: Mackenzie Myers, Reporter
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Last year, oncologists at Sutter Roseville Medical Center found a tumor in Linda Briw’s right breast. Five weeks after her mastectomy, her body rejected the replacement implant.

Though Briw, 68, of Lincoln, said her mastectomy wasn't devastating, it felt strange seeing herself in the mirror afterward.

"What you don't want is people looking at you and wondering why you're lopsided or uneven," Briw said. "You feel so self-conscious on your own."

For many women, losing a breast can mean losing a sense of womanhood, confidence or normalcy. Besides the financial and physical toll of tests, surgeries and radiation treatment, losing a breast can affect women emotionally. In Briw’s case, inhibited healing only lengthened the process.

So Briw had a choice to make. She could get a heavy, expensive, sweat-inducing but traditional silicone prosthetic, which often requires a doctor's prescription and slow insurance process, according to Briw's nurse Kelly Camarillo.

Or, she could try out a Knitted Knocker.

Founded in Bellingham, Washington, Knitted Knockers offers prostheses that are — unlike their conventional counterparts — lightweight, breathable, durable and inexpensive, coming to about $2.40 to $4 a pair, according to the organization's website.

Knockers are free to recipients, who put in an online request and receive them by mail. Yarn supply, time and postage are all provided by the knitter or crocheter.

Briw said she received hers from an anonymous knitter in Citrus Heights about a week after requesting them.

Rocklin resident and breast cancer survivor Carol Peterson has both made and received knockers after a double mastectomy. Peterson has crocheted over 50 pairs since December 2016, dropping them off at Sutter and University of California hospitals in the area.

"It's a nice thing to do and it makes me feel good — I'm not just sitting here twiddling my thumbs," Peterson said. "We had a lady whose son was getting married a week after her (mastectomy) and she didn't have time to get a prosthetic. We were able to knit her one and get it right over to her and her dress looked beautiful."

According to knitter Marie Busch, who splits her time between Orangevale and South Lake Tahoe, most recipients request the knockers in pairs. Many women prefer to have them in the same colors as their bras. The prosthesis can be knit in any bra size and have a hole in the back, where the user can adjust the stuffing to her preferred firmness.

Busch herself has not had breast cancer but became inspired to start knitting the prosthesis after nearly half her circle of friends from high school became diagnosed with the disease.

"I saw this and thought, 'Why am I making more socks?'" Busch said.

Now the knockers are the only thing she's made in the last two years, being the leader of a project team within the Camellia City Stockinettes, a group of 150 knitters from Sacramento, Roseville, Rocklin, Davis and the Tahoe area.

In order to become registered in the organization, Busch had to submit a sample to prove she could knit the pattern and teach others.

According to Busch and the organization's website, Knitted Knockers must follow a particular pattern and the end product must be soft, breathable, easy to wash, durable and look natural under clothing.

The rules are strict, not to deter those who wish to help out the cause, but to ensure a quality product for the women who use them. Knockers must be made from a list of 37 approved yarns found online, at big box stores or at local yarn shops like Roseville's Got Your Goat Yarn Studio.

Wool is soft but difficult to wash. Acrylic yarn, a washable substitute for wool, is too scratchy to use on an area that is sensitive even before radiation or surgery scars. With the exception of acrylic prostheses made for swimming, cotton yarn is a go-to for many knocker knitters, Got Your Goat owner Teresa Gemignani said.

Though there are Knitted Knocker teams throughout Northern California in Sacramento, the Bay Area and around Tahoe, there is not a registered group in South Placer. The need is not going away, either. According to Nancy Turner, spokeswoman for Sutter Health, there are 950 new breast cancer cases per year in the Greater Sacramento and Central Valley regions.

“Unfortunately cancer’s a booming business, and unless they come up with a cure I don’t see an end. There’s definitely a need out there,” Camarillo said.

Though there isn’t yet a cure, there is treatment for the pain that can come after, starting with yarn, a few needles and a willingness to help women in need.