Having to undergo a mastectomy (removal of the breast) can have a debilitating impact on a woman.
Societal pressures on the looks of a woman have always been a cause for concern. At a time when women spend lakhs on getting breast augmentation surgeries done, having to undergo a procedure to remove a breast can leave one shattered.
While women in urban India still have access to silicone prosthesis among other things, in rural India women often stuff handkerchiefs and cotton balls in their bras to create an illusion of a full breast — none of which is easy on the skin that has already gone through surgery and might lead to rashes, infections or skin abrasions.
Imagine the kind of pressure that forces a woman to undergo such pain, after undergoing such trauma, to look a particular way.
Kartika Rajagopal a 33-year-old Ayurvedic Ophthalmologist was diagnosed with breast cancer and advised a mastectomy in 2017. Subsequently, she was diagnosed with breast cancer again in 2020 and underwent yet another mastectomy.
From silicone-based prostheses to cotton ones, Kartika tried many before chancing upon the prostheses made by Saaisha India.
“It changed my life,” she says, describing the prostheses made by the group.
Saaisha India Foundation, a charitable organisation, is the brainchild of Jayashree Ratan, based in Mumbai who realised in 2018 the urgent need to find a solution for the many women in India who undergo mastectomy. It was here that they started making crocheted or knitted prostheses, called ‘Knitted Knockers’.
Having created a network of over 270 volunteers from across India, UAE and the US, this voluntary organisation has distributed over 5,700 prostheses for free in the last four years.
Speaking to The Better India, Jayashree says, “While I was travelling to the US I volunteered with a group that was making prostheses for women who had undergone mastectomies. It was around this time that one of my relatives in India had undergone a mastectomy as well.”
Jayshree recollects speaking to her relative and asking her if she was using a prosthesis of any kind.
The relative mentioned rolling up a dupatta and using it and that is when Jayashree asked her if she would be willing to try the crocheted prosthesis that she had made in the US. “I gave her a couple and after she used it she was in tears. She was the one who suggested that I do this for many others in India who did not have easy access to such prostheses. That was how knitted knockers was introduced in India.”
Over the next four years, from March 2018, Jayashree along with two other friends went on to establish a network all over India with women who in their own time, crochet these prostheses. “We never knew we would touch so many lives – it has been such an eye-opener,” she adds.
A Volunteer Organisation Run on Compassion
While initially, the organisation was functioning purely on word of mouth, during the COVID-19 lockdown they got the chance to create a social media presence. Srividya Gopinath, a volunteer with knitted knockers says, “Being on the various social media channels gave us great visibility. That helped spread the word and got us many interested knitters from across the country. We are tied up with various hospitals like Tata Memorial and Chennai Breast Centre.”
Some of the breast cancer survivors who have used the prostheses are now knitters and are active members of the community. “Pre-COVID we would meet up and knit together. However, now the activity is confined to our own homes.”
“The pattern is shared with the knitters who then make it with their own material, which is prior approved, in their own time,” says Srividya.
Since it is completely voluntary a few members knit up to 20 prostheses in a month and others manage between 10 to 12 each month. The prostheses are sent as a pair and can be washed and reused frequently. Adding to this, Srividya says, “Depending on usage one can use these prostheses for close to two years.”
“Once the knockers get here [Mumbai], it is filled with a fibrefill post which we send directly to the patients free of cost via Registered India Post. We don’t use a courier service as they don’t deliver to interior parts of the country,” says Jayashree.
In an attempt to bring about standardisation to the prostheses making process there are ongoing training sessions held.
Srividya says, “To ensure that small nuances like the sizing and tension of the stitches, etc. we conduct online training sessions. We have an active training cell that conducts these classes weekly. We have various stages – beginners, intermediate and senior batches. Each session caters to the needs of the various groups.”
The few that require correction are shared with the members who made them. From an active 16-year-old novice in UAE to an 82-year-old experienced crocheter from India, Saaisha India is home to many women. While the primary aim of the group is to provide prostheses to women, in the last year they have also made chemo caps and beanies for children affected by cancer.
The prosthesis and caps are all hand washable and can be used for up to two years. They are made from 100 per cent mercerized cotton yarn, which is soft on the skin and not prone to cause allergies as well. They are available in different cup sizes and fits well into the mastectomy bra.
“We advise to hand wash and to dry it on a flat surface to avoid disfiguring the prosthesis,” says Jayashree.
In conclusion, Jayashree says, “Just a few hours spent by our volunteers towards making these ‘knockers’ have changed the lives of so many women in such a deep way. That is the true reward of the work that we are putting in.”
If you have the bandwidth to volunteer or know someone who might benefit from these crocheted prostheses, please reach out to Jayashree Ratan at +91-77009 90212, or Srividya Gopinath at +91-9840462708.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)