SAN DIEGO - In the first two years of Pat Anderson's philanthropic mission, she knitted and shipped about 200 pairs of "Busters," which are pairs of breast-shaped bra inserts for breast cancer survivors like herself who have had mastectomies.
Then a September 2018 article in The San Diego Union-Tribune spread the word on the 87-year-old Escondido resident's home-spun project and interest in her fashion accessories exploded. In the two years since, Anderson's part-time hobby has turned into a full-time unpaid job that she said keeps her busy from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week.
Anderson, who turned 88 on Sept. 12, has shipped more than 1,000 pairs of Busters to women as far west as Hawaii and as far east as Georgia. To keep up with orders, Anderson brought on two volunteers last year. Jan Rillie of Cardiff and Pat Moller of Escondido are both experienced knitters and breast cancer survivors.
When Anderson initially launched the project in January 2017, she committed to underwriting all of the cost of the yarn and packaging herself and simply suggested donations for shipping. But from the beginning, recipients began to pay it forward. Busters-wearers - who Anderson calls the Sisterhood of the Boobless Wonders - often enclose generous checks with their thank-you notes. Last year, the donations exceeded Anderson's expenses by $4,000. She donates the excess donations each year to Sharp Memorial Hospital.
"My recipients are extremely generous," she said on Aug. 27. "It's not unusual to get a check for $100. They like Busters and they want to make sure other people get them, too."
Many of the Busters customers are referred by Sue Robinson, oncology patient navigator at Sharp Health's Laurel Amtower Cancer Institute in Kearny Mesa. A breast cancer survivor herself, Robinson said the Busters are softer, more comfortable and more adjustable than prosthetics for post-surgical mastectomy and pre-surgical breast reconstruction patients.
"It's been wonderful to have this for our patients, especially patients who are not going to reconstruct after mastectomies," Robinson said. "This surgery, for a lot of women, is life-changing and it's when their cancer becomes real. The person they look at in the mirror is not who they've looked at for all the years up to that point. What Pat provides is an outreach of compassion for these women whose breast identity has changed forever."
Anderson lost her breasts to cancer at the age of 74. During her recovery she was given a pair of silicone prosthetic forms to wear inside her bra that she found heavy, ill-fitting and uncomfortable. At first she experimented with rolled-up socks and bath scrubbers in her bra, but nothing felt right. So for many years she wore nothing.
Then in 2014, she learned about Knitted Knockers, an organization that works with knitters nationwide to make knitted bra inserts. She knitted 135 pairs with that organization, then decided to create a solo project with her own pattern that she felt was a more natural breast shape. She calls the Busters project the capstone of her 50-year career as a fiber designer and craftswoman.
Anderson started knitting as a girl, making socks for injured soldiers in World War II. As an adult, she taught college-level textile design at a private studio and later ran a business selling her hand-woven pillows, jackets and table linens.
Widowed in 2010, Anderson lived for eight more years at their Escondido ranch until her son and caregiver died in early 2018. Since then, she has lived at the Redwood Terrace retirement community in Escondido, which has been in lockdown since the pandemic began. Fortunately, Redwood has its own postal service, so she can ship orders without ever leaving the property.
Initially, Anderson gave away her Busters to mastectomy patients she found through the patient navigator in the oncology department at Sharp Memorial. But as word has spread through news articles and the Sisterhood network, she has received orders from all over. About half of all orders come from repeat customers. Busters are made from lightweight synthetic yarn and filled with removable microfiber cushions.
To order a set of Busters, patients can e-mail Anderson (email@example.com) with their preferred bra cup size, favorite yarn colors and mailing address. She aims to ship orders within a few days. Because demand for Busters seems to come in waves, she and her volunteers are constantly knitting to keep an inventory on-hand. Right now they have about 100 spare pairs in a variety of sizes.
Anderson said it's important for her to personalize the gift of Busters as much as possible so it's a positive addition to women's wardrobes rather than an unwanted reminder of what they've lost. To make the shipments special, Busters are wrapped in cellophane gift bags and colorful shipping envelopes and delivered with a hand-signed note authenticating each set as a hand-crafted original.
"A mastectomy is a very personal and private thing and a lot of women need to take their time to think about whether they're ready to take the next step to a prosthetic. Being handed a prosthetic can be upsetting and intrusive for a lot of women, so they have to ask for Busters," she said. "I'm not out to be the boob queen of the world, but I want to make sure that as many women as possible have the opportunity to ask for a pair."
To keep track of the project, Anderson keeps detailed and constantly updated spreadsheets. As of Aug. 28, her records show she had given away 1,054 pairs of Busters, not including the many pairs she initially made in 2017 to test out her pattern with fellow breast cancer survivors.
In the event of an emergency, illness or death, Anderson said she has gone through the spreadsheets and procedures for Rillie to carry on the Busters project in her absence. But Anderson said she has no plans to retire.
"Absolutely not. I retired to do this," she said. "It's as exciting and fresh for me and the others as when we first started."
Robinson with Sharp Health said she's grateful that Anderson has created a legacy plan for Busters because they're so important to the survivors who use them.
"One thing I love about Pat is her vivaciousness and positivity and passion for what she does," Robinson said. "To help other breast cancer patients going through a mastectomy, I think it's beautiful."
To order a pair of Busters, email Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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