Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women and accounts for 14% of cancers in Indian women. It is reported that every four minutes, an Indian woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. A 2018 report of Breast Cancer statistics recorded 1,62,468 new registered cases and 87,090 reported deaths.
Cancer survival becomes more difficult in higher stages of its growth, and more than 50% of Indian women suffer from Stages 3 and 4 of breast cancer. This indicates that a significant number of women have to undergo mastectomy as a part of their treatment.
Due to social norms, women consider breasts as an integral part of their feminine identity. Hence, breast removal for medical treatment or preventative reasons can lead to body image concerns, self-isolation, and other mental health concerns. Additionally, the body disbalance due to mastectomy can lead to a bent spine, backache, stooped shoulders, and other complications.
Affordable Prosthesis for Breast Cancer Survivors
For Akriti Gupta, casual conversations with her father’s oncologist made her realise the importance of comfortable and affordable prosthesis for women who have undergone a mastectomy. The foam-based prosthesis provided to patients through NGOs was a compromise, while the silicone-based ones were too expensive.
In 2015, Akriti teamed up with her mother and founded Canfem – a social enterprise that is dedicated to improving the quality of life of breast cancer patients and survivors in India. Akriti’s entrepreneurial journey began at the age of 18. Along with a team of experts, Akriti designed and developed a breast prosthesis that found approval with many leading oncologists including the Head of Oncology at AIIMS. Canfem started distributing these breast prostheses for free at local hospitals.
Empowering Urban and Rural Women
Akriti firmly believes that no woman needs to compromise while already going through the difficult journey of being a breast cancer patient/survivor. Hence, Canfem brassieres are available in 8 sizes and 3 shapes. Their range also caters to both, patients and survivors.
The Canfem prostheses are made using a cotton fabric technology and are designed to keep women comfortable in Indian climatic conditions. The best part – these brassieres super affordable. They are available from INR 499, a significantly lower price than other brassieres which costs INR 2800.
For the hundreds of Canfem consumers, the prosthesis has provided physical, emotional, and psychological support. To date, Akriti has been able to help over 3000+ patients and survivors with her products.
It’s not only the consumers of Canfem prosthesis who are empowered. The products are manufactured by women from rural Haryana. These women are trained and provided a means of livelihood to support their families and live with dignity.
Akriti proudly shares, “It’s not only about economic empowerment, but it’s also about social empowerment. After becoming financially independent, the women have fought against domestic violence, provided their children with better education, and got themselves digitally literate. They are now more confident to be themselves.”
Creating a Safe Space for Patients
This year, Akriti completed her Masters in Social Entrepreneurship from TISS, Mumbai. Her research on mental health issues faced by survivors of breast cancer compelled her to develop two more programs under Canfem.
Akriti now organises webinars for patients, survivors, and caregivers. They are focussed entirely on coping and not the problem. Experts from the field guide those seeking answers. She is also developing a peer-to-peer support group for survivors. It will be led by survivors who will be trained in counselling. The objective is to empathise instead of just sympathise. Women can honestly ask peer counsellors questions such as “How will my sex life be?”, “How will this affect my career?”, questions that they are often uncomfortable asking their doctors.
Hosting Awareness Campaigns
During her Masters, Akriti conducted a successful behavioral-change focused awareness campaign for breast cancer. The pilot, which was conducted with TISS Mumbai, showed that more than 90% of women were aware of breast cancer after the campaign while 400% of women began to self-examine.
Akriti used behaviour change cards and a dummy breast to engage 2400+ participants. The high replicability of the program can help her reach millions of women in the next couple of years. To scale this initiative, she is looking for funding that will help train local health workers to conduct these effective awareness campaigns. After all, prevention is better than cure.
Developing an Integrated Platform
Akriti’s passion, education, and numerous accolades bode well for her ambition. In the next few years, she sees Canfem as the go-to brand for breast cancer patients and survivors across India. She believes that Canfem’s affordable and quality products have the potential to disrupt the international market where similar products cost anywhere between $200-$400.
Further along the line, Akriti envisions developing an integrated platform for cancer care products. This platform will provide products and services for patients and survivors of all types of cancer.