Diet & Nutrition

Prosthetic breasts for breast cancer survivors in Fiji

By Jessica Leahy
Similar to statistics here in Australia breast cancer is among the most prevalent forms of cancer diagnosed in Fijian women but high costs of treatment coupled with low income means many women can only pay for basic care, just enough to ensure survival and nothing more – after care just isn't a luxury they can afford.
Enter Lily DeSantis, a breast prosthesis and bra fitting specialist, and Heather Tait, two women from the New South Wales south coast who have joined forces to reach out and provide our pacific sisters with prosthetic breasts and bras to aid in their effort cancer recovery.
DeSantis tells The Weekly the prosthesis project for our island neighbours was something she got into "by accident" after meeting Heather one day by chance.
"It was definitely destiny," Lily says. "We have mutual friends and we didn't even know that we had them but they were ladies that were collecting breast prosthesis for Heather through their cancer support group on the south coast, a place called Nowra."
"They were particularly unwell this group of ladies and said to me, 'Oh dear, we have to send these things over to Bowral to this lady who is going over to Fiji,' and I said, 'What things? What trip? What woman?' And they told me the whole story and I said 'I go to Bowral twice a week, throw them in the back of my car and I'll courier them up for you and all will be well.'"
After driving a car full of donated prosthetics an hour up the coast Lily arrived and met Heather Tait, a grocer from the country town of Robertson.
Naturally, the duo got to chatting and it was after hearing how Heather, who had been visiting Fiji for over a decade, had sourced a prosthetic breast for a Fijian friend's sister - who had survived breast cancer but had taken to blowing up balloons to stuff in her bra - that Lily knew she wanted to get involved and help.
Heather was already committed to helping the women of Fiji and had already done a few small trips to Fiji with prosthetics for the post-op patients but Lily, through the course of her work, was able to collect the second-hand prosthetics from breast cancer suffers and in June the two women travelled overseas to fit dozens of post-mastectomy patients with prosthetics and bras.
"Well Heather was very well organised and as far a customs and hospitals and she spoke with medical professionals and over the period of 12 months organised to get these women to brought to the Lautoka Hospital," Lily says.
"I just followed her like a puppy!"
Lily says on the trip the pair fitted close to 50 women and also trained a few nurses in the hospital.
"We left the excess prosthetics and bras for the nurses to fit ladies. It was just wonderful," Lily says.
"I was just sort of sobbing half the time. I don't think I really realised until I was there just how amazing it all was until I was in it and doing it."
In Australia, cancer suffers are able to claim their prosthetics on Medicare but being priced at about $400 a pop cost is one of the biggest factors preventing Fijian women getting their hands on the prosthetics and bras they need post-op.
The small Pacific nation has only one private hospital and many Fijian's cannot afford the high treatment costs meaning the majority depend on the strained public health system for acute and long-term care but projects like this one provide some hope outside the system.
Lily says she has been overwhelmed by the support from the Breast Cancer Network Australia and companies who have come on board to donate - Fiji Airways even took care of their freight costs free of charge.
But the Aussie mum says it's the grassroots help from fellow sufferers at home that has been the most meaningful.
"It's a community effort. Women helping other women with the same disease but in a completely different society where there really is no opportunity for prosthesis," Lily says.
"I had someone say to me, 'Oh but Fijians wouldn't care! They live in Fiji!' But I've seen women that are multi-millionaires and women in a village and when you lose your breast, your femineity, it hurts in exactly the same way. I've seen it and the grief is exactly the same.
Lily says her eyes have been opened.
"No matter if you're the queen on the hill or living in a grass hut, when your femininity is attacked you morn that loss...it's amazing what you learn just by being with people."
Lily DeSantis with the nurses at Lautoka Hospital on her visit in June.
After receiving a letter from one of the oncology nurses, Ana Raramasi, who praised the work the women had done and recalled how patients were dancing in the hallways and rejoicing about their bodies Lily says she was struck with a revelation.
"You know, it's not even that hard. It's like a little holiday to Fiji – that's easy. Pack stuff you already have in your possession – that's easy. Do this and you're healping change the lives of these women."
From their humble beginnings Lily says the next step is to get back over and fit as many women as possible but also help educate the locals about the importance of breast checks and try and remove the stigma and taboos about women's health in Fiji.
"We're already planning to go again in June next year and we have already enough stuff to go right now but the hope is we can fit everyone we see," says Lily.
While these two hard working volunteers deserve a well-earned pat on the back, Lily brushes off any praise saying "it's just the right thing to do".
"You know, we're just two birds doing a job that needs to be done in a really simple way," says Lily.
"We're just getting on the ground and doing it with our two hands."
If you would like to donate to this cause please contact Lily DeSantis. The details can be found at her website.

read more from