Breast Cancer Survivor Crafts 'Knitted Knockers' for Women Post-Mastectomy: 'It Was Life-Changing'

"It was life-changing for me," Barb Demorest tells PEOPLE

Shirlee Sullivan hated the silicone falsies she wore after her bilateral mastectomy in 2012. The breast cancer survivor says they were hot, heavy and irritated her skin.

“I decided, ‘I’ll go flat,’ ” says Sullivan, a 75-year-old retired registered nurse in Omaha, Nebraska. “But some of my clothes looked just ridiculous.”

While online, she stumbled across, a non-profit which gives cancer survivors like Sullivan free pairs of soft, hand-knit, washable prosthetic breasts.

“They’re warm in the winter, cool in the summer, they’re lightweight, you just put them into your regular bra and away you go – it looks like you have normal boobs again,” Sullivan says.

Barb Demorset
Suzanne Bair

Knitted Knockers was founded six years ago, by breast cancer survivor Barb Demorest.

After Demorest’s July 2011 mastectomy, the CPA assumed she could immediately have reconstructive surgery and no one would ever know she’d had cancer. But, due to complications, she couldn’t.

“I was devastated,” says Demorest, 66, of Bellingham, Wash. “I wanted to appear normal.”

Demorest’s surgeon told her that many women, like Sullivan, aren’t happy with traditional silicone falsies. When Demorest asked what else she could do, her doctor asked if she could knit.

She can knit, but she wasn’t in the right head space. She went home, called a friend and told her the doctor said a knitted breast worked well for one of his other patients.

A week later, Demorest stuck a sock in her bra and put on a loose-fitting jacket and went to church – there, her friend slipped her a pair of knitted knockers. Armed with her new accessory, Demorest took off her jacket and felt like herself again.

“It was life-changing for me,” says Demorest. She knew she had to make them available for other women who couldn’t knit, or didn’t have a close friend who did.

Knitted Knockers currently ships more than 1,000 free knockers a month. Their pattern has been downloaded more than 600,000 times.

Courtesy Barb Demorest

“The demand is huge,” Demorest says. “There’s 50,000 mastectomies done a year in the U.S. and about 90 percent of women have to wear a breast prosthetic for a while.”

The non-profit also partners with 450 medical facilities (breast surgeon’s offices, clinics, cancer centers and hospitals) around the country connecting them with local, volunteer knitters. They have 200 groups of knitters in 46 states.

Courtesy Barb Demorest

“She’s providing an incredible service to women,” says Carrie Hodges, senior director of account strategy and stewardship at the Susan G. Komen Foundation. “For some women, it can give you back a sense of femininity that breast cancer can take away. No matter how you arrive there, if you feel back to yourself or even a better version of yourself after breast cancer it’s a great thing.”

When Hodges went to lunch last year with Demorest and some of her volunteers, one woman pulled out her needles and started knitting a knocker at the table.

“They never stop,” Hodges says.

Volunteer Laureen Furnas, 67, knits about five knockers a week.

“It’s such a knitting-with-a-purpose project,” says

Furnas, an endometrial cancer survivor, says: “I knit all the time. I knit in my hot tub with a floaty with my yarn in it. I have three girls – how many socks, how many sweaters, how many scarves do they need?”

After a couple of years running the non-profit, Demorest retired from her work as a comptroller for automobile dealerships to devote all her time to Knitted Knockers.

“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I had no idea it would be the thing that would bring passion and purpose to me,” says Demorest. “I work harder than I ever did for a paycheck. I don’t get paid for this – but the rewards are priceless.”

Courtesy Shirlee Sullivan

Sullivan just received her second pair of knitted knockers. And when her daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer, and had a bilateral mastectomy in January 2013, Sullivan made sure she received a pair too. The knockers arrive prettily wrapped, with a handwritten note.

“It felt like a gift of love,” Sullivan says. “Prior to Knitted Knockers, my whole experience with breast cancer had been not only stressful, but expensive and very, very overwhelming. This was a delight.”

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