Breast Cancer Heroes You’ve Never Heard Of

These grassroots groups have made it their passion and mission to give survivors the best life possible.

breast cancer health
Serge Bloch for Reader’s Digest

The Knitters

Laughter and the staccato of clicking needles fill the air at the Tempe Yarn & Fiber shop in Arizona. It’s Friday evening, and volunteers lovingly produce colorful piles of “knitted knockers,” prostheses for women who have had mastectomies without reconstructive surgery. When put in a bra, the knockers—which are lighter and softer than silicone and plastic versions—look and feel like real breasts.

Since its inception three years ago, the group has supplied more than 2,000 knockers to women in some 40 states. The website provides patterns for do-it-yourselfers and lists groups that make and distribute the prostheses to women in need. Many of the knitters have firsthand experience with breast cancer. They send off each knocker with a personal note; some list the name of a person they’re honoring. One knitter with a sense of humor wrote, “You can get this one pierced, and it won’t hurt.”

The Tattoo Artist

Vinnie Myers, 51, didn’t expect to spend his career tattooing 3-D nipples on breast cancer patients’ reconstructed breasts. He started tattooing to earn extra money as a U.S. Army medic in South Korea in the 1980s and then built up a business in his native Maryland. In 2001, a local breast surgeon first asked Myers to create the impression of real nipples on a patient after her breast cancer surgery. But it wasn’t until Myers’s younger sister was diagnosed with the disease nearly a decade later that he knew this would be his life’s work. His nipples are so lifelike that they fool the eye, which gives women who’ve had mastectomies and reconstruction an aesthetic sense of wholeness. It’s rewarding to be the final step “in the long, hard journey many of them have gone through,” says Myers. “But it’s over when they leave here. I’m lucky to be the guy who puts the cherry on the cupcake!”

breast cancer health
Serge Bloch for Reader’s Digest

The Healthy Cook

Ann Ogden Gaffney is the daughter of a master baker and the granddaughter of a chef. But it took two bouts of cancer for her to learn about the therapeutic benefits of eating well through cooking and to pass that knowledge on to others. “Cooking foods I could tolerate during chemo was nourishing and empowering at a time when I had little control over anything else in my life,” says Gaffney.

She decided to launch Cook for Your Life, a nonprofit that provides free monthly cooking classes to cancer patients and caregivers, who learn to cook an entire meal with fresh, plant-based ingredients. Five years later, in 2012, she created the website, which offers cooking videos, a nutritionist to answer questions, and a search engine that organizes recipes based on treatment, side effect, and dietary needs. “I love showing people how easy it is to turn dark leafy greens and whole grains into deliciousness,” says Gaffney. “Taking care of yourself starts with what you put on your plate, and cooking healthy is the key.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest