Innovative design aims to boost quality of life for women post mastectomy

A student designer is doing her best to bring joy to cancer survivors by developing colourful, comfortable prosthetic breasts.

Rosie Brave, a student at the University of Plymouth studying towards a research masters (ResM) in Digital Art and Technology, was inspired to make a difference after hearing about a friend’s mother’s struggle with the breast form she was given following surgery.

So along with the friend, Sam Jackman, Rosie started Boost, aiming to radically rethink the design of breast prostheses and come up with something that could give pleasure to wearers. The models they have created are colourful, lightweight and breathable, and designed via a collaborative process with those who have gone through the trauma of breast cancer and mastectomy.

Rosie said:

“The idea came from Sam’s mother having a mastectomy, and hating the prosthesis she had. I’m always questioning why things are the way they are and how they can be better, and I love colour. Part of the issue with the prosthesis was that it was beige, and it was bland, and it didn’t match her skin tone. It was trying to look real but failing.

“We just thought it was much more interesting to depart from trying to be realistic at all, and have some fun with it.”

Post-mastectomy, patients can opt for breast reconstruction, but many choose not to go down that route. For these people, the NHS offers breast prostheses that can go inside a specialised bra with a pocket, or a normal bra. But Rosie and Sam cite NHS figures suggesting wellbeing is lower in women who do not opt for reconstruction.    

Rosie’s university research has led her to choose a co-design process that involves other people, through design workshops and focus groups. She has also worked with 3D printing technology, allowing her to move away from realism in the design of her breast forms, and experiment with different concepts and structures. She has run a number of sessions where breast prosthesis users have given feedback on her ideas, and events where users have been able to design their own.

Rosie and Sam’s biggest challenge is finding a way to bring down the cost of manufacture. Rosie continued:

“The standard NHS prosthesis is hot, heavy and sweaty to wear. That was one of the first things we discovered, we thought if we can make it look attractive then we’re winning, but actually the feedback was, you need to deal with the heaviness and the hotness.

“That’s why we started to create things that were breathable, with an open structure that would let the air pass through. This structure is also part of the decorative element, but manufacturing it is quite tricky.

“That’s where 3D printing comes in, but unfortunately the cost of 3D printing in silicone is currently prohibitive, and people really want something affordable. They’re spending a fortune on specialised bras after surgery, and if they want additional prostheses from the NHS they have to buy them. The costs add up, so making an expensive product, even if it would be more comfortable to wear, didn’t really sit right.”

She added: 

“If someone has had a limb amputation it’s quite apparent, but this is hidden, and sometimes people’s best friends don’t even know. That’s fine if that’s what you want, but I don’t think everyone wants that. I think it’s still taboo, and we’re trying to push back against that a little.

“Some of the people we spoke to had this attitude of ‘oh well, it doesn’t matter, I don’t matter, I just have to get on with it’. They’re used to the way things have always been, and they don’t expect their prosthesis to be something fun that gives them joy. I think there’s an opportunity to change that.”

Sam and Rosie have already received £15,000 through the Design Council’s Spark programme, in which they were finalists this year. They are currently seeking further investment to move to full product testing.

Rosie is planning an exhibition of prototypes to begin on International Women's Day, Friday 8 March next year. Each will be unique and tailored to the individual women who participated in the research project, and who will be invited along with their families and the public.

Find out more about Boost: