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News / Health / Breast Cancer

Breast cancer survivors are yarn good

‘Boobless Wonders’ knit inserts for mastectomy patients

By Pam Kragen, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Published: May 10, 2022, 6:05am

SAN DIEGO — On the last Sunday of each month, 89-year-old Pat Anderson of Escondido, Calif., gets together with the six other local senior women who make up her highly specialized knitting circle. But don’t let these ladies’ shared passion for knitting fool you into thinking they’re leisurely hobbyists.

Anderson is the founder of the Sisterhood of the Boobless Wonders, a group of breast cancer survivors who over the past five years have knitted and given away nearly 2,500 pairs of Busters, which are breast-shaped pillowlike bra inserts for women who have lost breasts to mastectomy surgery.

Anderson started the Busters project in 2017 as what she calls her last and largest knitting project in her 50-year career as a dedicated fiber designer. The widowed Minnesota native lost her breasts to cancer at the age of 74. During her recovery, she received a pair of silicone prosthetic forms to wear inside her bra but — like many women — she found the silicone forms were too heavy and they didn’t fit properly.

She tried putting rolled-up socks and bath scrubbers in her bra instead, and then gave up and wore nothing, but her clothes didn’t fit properly, so she decided to create her own knitted wardrobe accessories with acrylic and nylon yarn. The resulting pattern, which she has patented, has triangular knitted panels on top and a flat panel in the back with a hole in the middle that can be used to fill the Buster with enough polyfiber filling to fit any breast cup size.

Eager to share her creation with others, Anderson reached out to Sharp Memorial Hospital’s oncology patient navigators to get referrals for women who’d like a pair of Busters. As word spread nationwide about Anderson’s self-funded campaign, she has gradually recruited six other master knitters to the fold: Pat Moller, Jan Rillie, Pat Hamada, Ann Hornby, Bobbie Weiss and K.J. Koljonen.

The recruitment job has been a big challenge. Not only must the all-volunteer team members be professional-level knitters willing to give dozens of hours of their time each month to knit flawless Busters, they must also be breast cancer survivors. That’s the key, Anderson said, to being part of the Sisterhood of the Boobless Wonders, or SBW for short.

“They must be breast cancer survivors in order to be part of a team that is making a really significant difference in other women’s lives,” Anderson said. “When we are working on Busters, our entire mental, physical and emotional energy is focused on the project and we transfer that energy to the project through our hands.”

Anderson said it takes about eight hours to complete a set of Busters, which come in a variety of pretty pastel colors to brighten their wearers’ spirits. Whenever Anderson receives an order via email (spinshuttlestudio@gmail.com), she gets the owner’s size preference and address, gift wraps a set, puts it in a packing envelope and ships it immediately.

In the early years, Anderson covered all the yarn, packaging and shipping costs herself, but many recipients respond with a thank-you note and donation to pay forward the gift of Busters to another breast cancer survivor. Any cash donations left over at the end of the year after product costs are covered have been donated to Sharp Memorial Hospital.

Last year, after “PBS NewsHour” did a national story on the Sisterhood, so many Busters orders and donations poured in that Anderson had $9,600 in donations left over at year-end. She gave $6,100 to Sharp Memorial, $1,000 to KPBS Television and $2,500 to the Bay area chapter of Pink Ribbon Girls, a survivors-run movement that provides hot meals, housekeeping, babysitting, rides to appointments and other services to women undergoing breast cancer treatment.

The PBS report was a boon for Anderson’s knitting team, which was largely idled for much of the pandemic. Last month, Anderson shipped out 31 pairs of Busters. In the same month last year, she shipped just five pairs. Her goal is to get enough orders to keep the team engaged — they have a group goal of 82 pairs a month — so they have plenty of inventory available in all colors and cup sizes and no one has to wait more than a few days for a pair.

Anderson said many of her new clients over the past two years have ordered Busters because the small boutiques around the country that fitted and sold silicone prosthetics went out of business during the pandemic. Anderson said women could still shop online for these products, which can cost up to $300 per prosthetic, but they can’t test it out first. She said some of these silicone devices weren’t returnable and some women have had trouble filing the necessary paperwork to get reimbursed by their insurers.

Besides maintaining a steady stream of orders, Anderson has another goal — to recruit more knitters. She will turn 90 in September and two other knitters are also in their 80s. The youngest knitter is 68. Anderson is now making plans to train the other Busters knitters to share the responsibilities of purchasing materials, handling orders, shipping and charitable giving when she’s gone.

Recently, Anderson learned she was nominated for a community hero award at this summer’s San Diego County Fair. She was touched by the nomination and she’s proud of the work Busters has accomplished over the past five years.

“This is the culmination of all those 50 years that I spent working toward this,” she said. “It feels awfully good to see that this particular project, which is the most important one I’ve ever done, has made such a difference to so many people.”