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These tight-knit retirees are helping breast cancer survivors feel like 'Boobless Wonders'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: For women with breast cancer, losing one or both breasts in the course of treatment can be a shattering experience.

As Maya Trabulsi of KPBS in San Diego reports, a tight-knit group of women at a retirement home in Escondido, California is lessening the pain associated with mastectomy, one loving and skillful stitch at a time.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Pat Anderson: It's like riding a bicycle. You don't forget.

Maya Trabulsi: In her little cottage at Redwood Terrace retirement home, Pat Anderson's creativity hasn't slowed down over the years. After a long career as a textile designer, she still enjoys making yarn by hand on her homemade spinning wheel.

Pat Anderson: And everything you wear starts with this process.

Maya Trabulsi: Her work, both old and new, is strewn on her couch.

Her friend Pat Moller is here.

Pat Anderson: This is the very first thing I ever made. Did you see this hat, Pat?

Pat Moller: No.

Maya Trabulsi: And admires her handmade creations from the '70s.

Pat Moller: How neat.

Maya Trabulsi: The two Pats call this tranquil home in Escondido the Magic Place, as it has become the setting of their new friendship, as well as a surprising grassroots movement called SBW.

Pat Anderson: And that stands for Sisterhood of the Boobless Wonders.

Maya Trabulsi: The Sisterhood of the Boobless Wonders are breast cancer survivors and part of a trio of knitters who have literally taken comfort into their own hands, in the shape of hand-knitted bust forms, aptly called Busters.

Pat Anderson: And here they are. They're nothing more than a specially designed accessory.

Maya TrabulsiI: In the six years since Pat made the first prototype, The Busters Project has helped more than 1, 200 women across the country who have undergone mastectomy surgery.

Pat Anderson: All women's clothing is designed to accommodate the bust contour. So, if that is gone, your clothes don't fit right and you end up feeling dumpy and unkempt.

Maya Trabulsi: Pat says, most of all, it shows. And until now, the only official solutions offered to patients were surgical reconstruction or medical-grade silicone prosthetics, which can be heavy.

Busters, on the other hand:

Pat Anderson: This weighs less than an ounce. they're soft. They're washable. They're natural and normal looking.

Maya Trabulsi: At first glance, Busters may look simple.

Pat Anderson: These are tricky to make.

Maya Trabulsi: Pat says there is a very specific knitting technique that involves the direction and grain of the yarn. And Pat has proudly patented the design.

Pat Anderson: We have got a contour here, but it has to be flat on the back.

Maya Trabulsi: What makes them even more unique, unlike prosthetics, is that they are customizable in size by simply adding or removing filling.

Pat Anderson: Almost a full cup size larger or smaller.

Maya Trabulsi: Every last detail has been considered.

Pat Anderson: The light, bright, cheerful colors help women remember that they are breast cancer survivors, not victims.

Maya Trabulsi: Each pair takes about eight hours to knit. It's a real labor of love.

Pat Anderson: What do you think of something like this?

Pat Moller: Color-wise?

Maya Trabulsi: So, Pat Moller stepped in to help.

Pat Moller: She happened to be in front of me in the buffet line. And I said, if you need any help knitting, I would be happy to.

Pat Anderson: And she's doing the biggest sizes. So, you know she's a good knitter.


Maya Trabulsi: When fellow resident Berniece Dufour found a lump on her breast:

Berniece Dufour: I didn't want any nonsense. I said, just lop it off.

Maya Trabulsi: Medicare covered the cost of the silicone prosthetic she holds in her hand, which usually costs more than $200 per breast.

Berniece Dufour: I weighed it on my postal scale. It weighs two pounds. And it was hot in the summer and it could even be cold in the winter. I don't think anyone would choose this.

Maya Trabulsi: Since she was introduced to Busters, she says this breast sits in a box.

Berniece Dufour: Now I have a much better choice, and I'm sticking with it.

Maya Trabulsi: A basketful of thank-you notes with gratitude from recipients usually comes with donations that go toward sponsoring another woman's pair, from one survivor to another.

Woman: There is life after breast cancer.

Maya Trabulsi: As for Pat Anderson, in a career that dates back more than 50 years, she says Busters is her final project.

Pat Anderson: How many almost 89-year-old women can say that they're still doing something that makes a difference?

Maya Trabulsi: And much like the 60/40 acrylic/nylon blend chosen for its strength and its softness, these survivors exude that same resilience, creating a product that is built to last, down to the final thoughtful stitch.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Maya Trabulsi in San Diego.

Judy Woodruff: And they are making a difference. What a wonderful story.

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