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    "Stitched With Love”

    Celebrating breast cancer projects across the FAWCO world!

    Do you know that the incidence of breast cancer varies from 19.3 per 100,000 women in Eastern Africa to 89.7 per 100,000 women in Western Europe? Belgium has the highest incidence of breast cancer, namely 113.2 per 100,000 women, followed by Luxembourg, the Netherlands and France. Many FAWCO clubs around the world create awareness of breast cancer patients by making heart pillows and drain bags, arranging information sessions on breast cancer, sponsoring dedicated spaces in hospitals and participating in Race for the Cure activities.  

    pink ribbon Image by marijana1 from Pixabay3715345 640

    Image by marijana1 from Pixabay

    This blog will take you on a journey of club activities!  Become inspired!  

    Kramer Mai Janet BSN OCN CNBN smallI could track the origin of the heart-shaped pillow back to Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Janet Kramer-Mai (picture) had surgery for breast cancer in 2002. Her aunts sewed and gave her a pillow post-surgery to fit under her arm to relieve the discomfort of the surgery. Following her recovery, Janet introduced the pillow to the hospital. Janet’s aunts continued to sew pillows until they passed away, then cancer survivors and support groups took over the making of the pillows. I made contact with Janet while researching the origin of the pillows; she was so amazed by the support from FAWCO: “The Heart pillow Project continues to grow and reach women from all walks of life with the single purpose of supporting another woman during what is likely one of the most difficult times of her life – her cancer journey. This completely warms my heart!” 

    Nancy Friis-Jensen, a Danish nurse, met Janet at a meeting in the US, and was so impressed with the idea of the heart-shaped pillow that she brought the design to Denmark. And so, the idea of making pillows spread to many of the FAWCO member clubs!

    There are many benefits to the pillows: showing patients that they are not alone and that there are women in many places around the world supporting them in their recovery, relieving the pain from the incision, protecting the patient against accidental bumps and injuries, and relieving muscle tension in the shoulder area. 

    The idea of making pillows has spread around the world, and numerous hospitals and organizations are now making pillows for women in their communities – e.g., Soroptimists, NHS Trusts, hospitals and breast cancer charities. But great was my surprise when I found that you can even buy pillows (heart and other shaped) through Amazon and Etsy shops. Also interesting was the evolution in the range of products available to support women recovering from breast cancer: the traditional heart-shaped pillow, sets comprising a small and a larger pillow for use at different stages in recovery, mastectomy drain pouches, seatbelt pillows and pillows for women who have had a double mastectomy.

    What are the FAWCO clubs across the world doing? 


    AWC Lebanon (Material Girls)  


    The AWC Material Girls is an activity group that has been meeting for over five years, sewing, knitting, crocheting, doing patchwork and other needlework projects. They devoted their energy and talents to the FAWCO “Heart Pillow” Project during 2019.  It all started with a chance encounter on a bus during the FAWCO Target Project site visit to Hope Beyond Displacement in Lebanon, when Sherry Mikdashi saw someone using a beautiful heart-shaped pillow following a mastectomy.  When Sherry got home, the idea of making heart pillows for women in Lebanon and helping the Lebanese Breast Cancer Foundation came to life. She first proposed it as a board project and then asked the Material Girls to help. With financial support from the board and donations of cotton fabric and stuffing, the ladies went ahead and made over 250 pillows. 

    It soon became a club project when a general meeting was dedicated to the stuffing and packing of 100 pillows. All the members involved with this activity enjoyed it tremendously, knowing that they were participating in a small way to give unknown women comfort after the pain and trauma of a mastectomy.  On December 17, 2018, members of the American Women’s Club of Lebanon (AWC) first visited the Naef K. Basile Cancer Institute (NKBCI) at the American University of Beirut Medical Centre (AUBMC). They offered the heart pillows to the NKBCI Breast Cancer Centre of Excellence and the Lebanese Breast Cancer Foundation (LBCF), to be distributed to all breast cancer patients undergoing mastectomies at AUBMC. 

    Members of the club visited the Institute during February 2019 and met some of the senior management of the Institute. It was heartwarming to learn from the medical staff how all the hard work that went into making the pillows was appreciated. The Heart Pillow Project was a success all around. From FAWCO to AWC to the LBCF, the bright idea circled the world and brought us all together in the name of helping women. The club remains active and finished 50 pillows during their January meeting. 


    AWC of Antwerp (Caring Hearts)

    The club started making pillows in 2008, and to date has made about 6,500 pillows. The club is providing pillows to 10 hospitals in the cities of Antwerp, Brussels, Leuven and Gent. There are two groups (city and suburbs) that meet once a month to make pillows, and partners with social organizations and schools to keep up the supply. The sad reality is that the club cannot keep up with the demand…

     AWC of Antwerp has also raised over €50,000 for the development of breast cancer lounges at four of the hospitals where the pillows are distributed. This is a haven for patients to have conversations with their treating physician and supporting nurse. 

    A new addition to the breast cancer outreach is Knitted Knockers. These are knitted breast prostheses for women who have undergone mastectomies. Some hospitals provide breast prosthetics, but they aren't always routinely offered. One of the club members read about the concept of knitting prostheses, and a small group of ladies are now actively making “Knitted Knockers.” 

    The Think Pink Race for the Cure has become an important event for Caring Hearts. In 2009, two ladies participated and since then the group has grown to over 50 for the past two years. We are given a tent at the race where we sell handmade items with material left over from making pillows. Cookies and other baked items are sold to raise money for the pillows.


    AIWC Düsseldorf (Heart2Heart)

    The club started making pillows in 2014.  For several years, the club donated pillows to the Bethesda Hospital in Duisburg and the Sana Klinik in Düsseldorf.  Members of the club have made over 2,000 pillows since 2014.


    AWO Greece 

    In 2007, AWOG FAWCO Rep Grace Christovasilis attended the FAWCO Conference where the Heart Pillow project was introduced by Nancy Friis-Jensen. She presented it to the AWOG Board on her return and this was the start of the Heart Pillow Project for the club. AWOG has been sewing, stuffing and delivering their AWOG Heart Pillows since then, and a fair estimate is that the club has delivered 8,000 heart pillows during this wonderful journey. The pillow tag reads “Made with love by the members of AWOG” – and they truly are. 

    The last stuffing party took place on October 20, 2019, when members, friends, daughters and granddaughters of AWOG gathered and successfully sewed and packaged 180 Heart Pillows for distribution to mastectomy patients in Athens public hospitals. Members of the FAWCO Youth program joined AWOG members at this event.  AWOG membership is committed to this long standing project. Many of the original members continue to sew on a regular basis; throughout all the years, fabric for the pillows has been donated by members and friends of AWOG.

    Since January of 2020, 200 heart pillows have been delivered to public hospitals in Athens. The Heart Pillow Coordinator, Dr. Pelagia Karas, regularly meets with doctors to assess the needs of each hospital. Members of our Community Services Committee make most of the deliveries. Distribution of another 100 pillows is planned for February. 



    In the spring of 2020, AWOG will have a pillow stuffing party at a nursing home, one of the club’s community service projects. This event will have two outcomes: a visit by our membership to the service center and the opportunity for the community service residents to participate in making pillows.  

    In honor of International Women’s Day, AWOG is hosting a Medical Conference on March 6; this meeting will include a session on breast cancer with a reference to the value of the heart pillows for mastectomy patients.     


    AWC of Brussels (Hearts for H.O.P.E.) 

    “You go through the wars to become a warrior,” – the inspiring motto for the club!  Making heart pillows is a recent activity for the Brussels club; they became inspired after hearing about this from the neighbouring AWC of Antwerp. A group of AWC Antwerp members spent a morning with AWC of Brussels, showing them how the pillows are made and setting them on the journey of making heart pillows.  The club donated 100 pillows to UZ Leuven in 2018 and just over 150 in 2019.  The club is confident that they will continue to expand this activity in 2020. UZ Leuven will remain the only recipient for the moment; the hospital has 24 beds, and they are always very grateful to receive the pillows. 


    AIWC Genoa

    AIWC of Genoa has been sewing the heart pillows for 10 years. Ann De Simoni says, "Sometimes we come across a project that’s truly special, a project that not only helps someone going through a tough time, but also sends a message of love and support. Such is the case with this Helping Heart mastectomy breast cancer heart-shaped pillow”.  When AWIC Genoa first started sewing the pillows, they looked for sponsors who wanted to help in buying cushion materials as well as covering the costs of promotion and organization of events. Sewing would take various forms, from small to large meetings, through sewing in groups of volunteers and private individuals.

    The club has now added the heart pillows as a line item in the club budget, with a dedicated budget for the materials used. The fabric used often is donated, but the stuffing is more expensive, and there is also the cost of packaging the pillows.

    The AIWC of Genoa group has about 12 ladies who volunteer for this project, sewing about 300 pillows a year. In addition, 300 drainage bottle bags (lightweight shoulder bags to carry drainage equipment) have been donated. 





    The club donated €4,000 to the Department of Prof. Daniele Friedman at the San Martino Breast Unit in Genoa. The money was used to print brochures for this unit, as well as for the purchase of pretty bags which contain the drainage equipment and tablets for the patients’ internet point right there on the hospital floor.

    American Women’s Club of Hamburg (From the Heart Working Bee)            

    2019 has been a busy year for the club! In the spring of 2019, while delivering 50 heart pillows to the Helios Mariahilf in Hamburg, the club was asked by the oncological specialist nurse if they would consider broadening the project to include drainage bottle bags. 


    Patients in the breast cancer unit need to carry drainage bottles for a while after their surgeries, and these bags are certainly not a treat to look at. When a lymph node or a breast is removed, a drainage tube is necessary. Most women don’t feel comfortable walking the halls with a bottle. Therefore, the bottle bags are psychologically important. Members of the club took on the task of designing the pattern for the bags, as well as purchasing the materials necessary for making the first batch of 50.


    The first Working Bee in 2019 took place in May, with 15 members present. The ladies cut, sewed, ironed and stuffed pillows with filling, and finished the bags for most of the day; the results: 50 drainage bottle bags and 40 pillows were completed. A second Working Bee was held in a hall because of the increased interest among club members, with completion of 30 pillows and 60 drainage bags. The pillows and bags were delivered to Helios Mariahilf hospital, each with a tag attached with the AWCH logo, washing instructions and a request for feedback. 

    The next Working Bee will be in spring 2020. We motivate all our club members to consider joining the Working Bees. There is a job for everyone, no matter what your sewing skills are – there is always an iron available.


    AWC Berlin

    The club is not sewing pillows, but dedicates a General Meeting to breast cancer and the importance of early detection. The meeting will be addressed by a radiologist who is an expert in the field of breast imaging. The talk will focus on breast cancer risks, prevention and early detection.  Early detection of breast cancer remains the key to prevent advanced-stage breast cancers which cannot be cured or which demand aggressive therapies to be cured. 

    The German Mammography Screening program started in the year 2005. Prof. Dr. Katja Siegmann-Luz is a Radiologist and expert in the field of breast imaging.  


    Barcelona Women’s Network

    The club started with the project more than five years ago when they read about the activities of other FAWCO clubs. They became very inspired and asked Nancy Friis-Jensen for permission to use the pattern.  A member of the BWN met the director of the Cancer Institute of Barcelona, showed her the pillows, which she liked, and a group of ladies started making pillows.  Since then, the BWN provides 20 pillows every month to the Cancer Institute. In addition, they were also asked to make some balls that are used in the physiotherapy department to prevent lymphoedema of the arm. The club makes 24 balls per month. The balls are about 12-14 cm in diameter. A group meets on a regular basis to cut, sew and stuff the pillows and balls. It’s mostly the same group of women, but they always welcome new ladies to help with this activity.  

    Francesca Braschi Facchini said: “We have fun together and we like to work for people we don’t know. Occasionally when delivering the pillows, I have met someone who has been using them, and they always show their gratitude.”  


    AWC The Hague

    The club started making pillows in 2008 and have since donated several thousand pillows to several local hospitals in the area. Each set of pillows is packaged with a bow and a bilingual message signed by volunteers and donated to area hospitals.  The club also organized a few Pink Galas (2002–2008) and raised more than one million euros for the support of breast cancer. In 2015–16, a donation was made to Look Good, Feel Better, an organization that deals with the cosmetic effects of chemotherapy. This is an organization with activities in many other countries.  


     AW of Surrey 

    The club doesn’t make pillows, but arranged a very successful awareness session in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support, a UK-based charity that is doing amazing outreach across the country.  The club raised funds that were donated to Macmillan to continue their work.    


    AAWE Paris

    In autumn of 2015, AAWE decided to start participating in the Heart Pillow Project. We loved the idea of bringing comfort to surgery patients, and the “hand-made” nature of the pillow is tangible evidence of caring, whether anonymously offered or not.

    Our Handicrafts group produced 35 cheery pillows and attached a warm note to each one. Ready for distribution, the club was stymied to find that no local hospital would accept them; they eventually discovered Cancer Support France and started to partner with them. A local association in the south of France agreed to accept them, and once they were seen and experienced by clients, sincere and profuse thanks followed. The following February, the president of the National organization contacted AAWE which resulted in a well-attended presentation at AAWE on the history, mission, and functions of Cancer Support France. The rest is happy history: the core group of AAWE members agreed to band together and officially form an association. AAWE's offshoot of CSF was granted 1901 Status (non-profit) in December of 2016.

    Since that time, we have made more heart pillows and have been happy to be able to distribute them locally, as well as supply several to other chapters of CSF. Seven AAWE club members participated in the Active Listener Training program in early 2017. It was an edifying and educational experience; we all agreed we’d learned skills for life as much as for working with clients. We began receiving and helping people almost immediately, sometimes intensively and in person, sometimes only by the rather removed medium of text message or telephone. At this time, we have gained another few Active Listeners, and we are looking for methods to publicize our group in order to help more people. We would like to become a “full-service” association, and offer support in myriad ways, such as holding coffee mornings or fund- and awareness-raising events. AAWE has been consistently supportive, both in terms of helping us publicize as well as financially. While we do have a few members who are not “overlaps” with AAWE, the core group is still very much a part of both organizations.


    AWG Languedoc-Rousillon

    Several members of the American Women's Group of Languedoc-Roussillon (AWG-LR) have trained as volunteers with Cancer Support France (CSF) to help those afflicted with cancer. These volunteers provide linguistic, practical and emotional support in English to cancer patients, their caregivers, their families. Every year CSF organizes a Walk for Life as their main fundraiser. Many AWG-LR members participate, with or without sponsors. The photo shows AWG-LR members on one of these walks.


    The final words come from the AWC of Hamburg, and resonate with all who have been involved with this amazing initiative: “Our pillows and drainage bags are very well received, not only by the patients, but the nursing staff, too. They have told us the patients’ faces brighten up and their spirits are lifted when they are given a pillow and bag. We know our hard work makes a difference, and this is what keeps us going.”



    Photos: courtesy of all participating clubs.   








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