The thing about cancer – a life-threatening disease – is that the road to recovery is more challenging than the treatment itself. Financial exhaustion aside, the patient is robbed of their confidence, dignity, and self-worth, especially in cases where there is a visible change.
After going through the painful chemo sessions and heavy radiation, the survivor goes through yet another battle of emotional distress.
In the case of breast cancer, after mastectomy (partial or complete surgical removal of one or both breasts), there are very few complete, durable, affordable rehabilitation options in India. For any woman, losing such an integral part of her body is as good as compromising on her identity.
Having witnessed this first-hand, Dr Pawan Mehrotra, a biochemist breast cancer researcher, innovated a low-cost solution in the form of ‘Poorti.’ It is a holistic and portable kit comprising lightweight silicone gel-based breast prosthesis and associated accessories designed for breast cancer patients available in different sizes and shapes.
Priced at Rs 4,000 onwards, the non-invasive kit has one waterproof breast prosthesis, two pocketed brassieres, two prosthesis covers, one prosthesis holder, and an outer waterproof kit. All a patient has to do is keep the breast prosthesis inside the cotton cover and place the cover inside the pocket bra. A one-minute video has been developed to assist first-time users to understand the utility and usage of the Poorti kit.
It was an accidental encounter with a couple in a Bengaluru hospital that prompted Dr Mehrotra to develop this smart and robust solution.
At the time, Dr Mehrotra was working at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru on therapeutic modalities for breast cancer patients. Upon observing a lady whose saree was draped on the wrong side, he tried to make conversation with her. When she refused even to make eye contact, he turned towards her husband.
“The wife wasn’t able to cope after losing one breast. She was so embarrassed to be in public that she covered herself entirely with the saree. Her husband said her life felt incomplete post the surgery and treatments,” recalls Dr Mehrotra in a conversation with The Better India.
Developing the Device
‘Why can’t the hospital provide a solution before or after the removal of the breast to avoid the emotional turmoil?’ – this life-changing question prompted the PhD holder to quit his job and venture into uncharted territory.
Interestingly, he resigned the day his daughter Aarna was born on 7 February 2014. To mark the auspicious event, he named his social enterprise, Aarna Biomedical Products, after her.
In the same year, he received seed capital from Social Alpha (Tata Trusts), an organisation that nurtures start-up teams and immense support from the leadership at Translational Health Science and Technology Institute – an autonomous institute of Government of India, Foundation for Innovation and Technology Instiute, IIT-Delhi, SIIC-IIT-Kanpur and Venture Center-Pune.
Being a cancer biologist, he had no prior knowledge and skills with respect to the manufacturing process. To perfect his building methods, he learnt basic manufacturing techniques from IIT Delhi along with undergraduate students, with support from Profesor P V M Rao, Divas Gupta and Sandeep Kumar.
Every time Dr Mehrotra felt like he was not making any progress, he reminded himself of the lack of inclusive and feasible products in India.
“While our market does have imported silicone breast options, it has limitations. The high prices eliminate the low- and middle-income groups. Plus, they are heavy-weight. The cheaper imported ones are made from adulterated or industrial silicone. These problems boosted me at every stage,” he explains.
Dr Mehrotra and his team finally cracked the manufacturing process after 3-4 years of rigorous hard work. Though he was ecstatic about sending it for trials to cancer treatment centres and hospitals, he preferred testing it on himself.
“Many women had complained that imported prosthetics put a strain on their shoulders. So, without reducing the volume, we reduced the weight of the breast by 35 per cent. I wanted to experience it myself and assess if it felt unnatural or uncomfortable. Only after I was satisfied, I approached cancer survivors,” he says.
After 18 months of trials in Delhi hospitals, he launched the product on 1 January 2018. A year later, it was launched nationally by officials from the Government of India, BIRAC, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.
How It Works & Impact
With financial assistance from Social Alpha, he tied up with several hospitals, NGOs and dealers across India to provide Sampoorti – a testing kit for patients – to try. This is a mobile suitcase that contains the prosthesis in ten sizes, pocketed bras in eight sizes, and ten prothesis covers.
The social enterprise also offers home service in a few locations, where a female staff visits the patient’s house with a trial kit in their size. When they like it, they place an order.
So far, thousands of Poorti kits have been sold pan India.
Jyotsana Narsimha had lost her left breast to surgery, post which she started leaning on her right side while walking. She shares, “It was quite embarrassing, and slowly I stopped going out. During one of the hospital visits, a woman sitting next to me told me about Poorti. On her suggestion, I booked a trial. Once I started using it, my weird walk vanished and my back pain also reduced.”
Meanwhile, Professor Daman Saluja vouches for its quality, saying, “I have been using Poorti for the past 2.5 years; it is comfortable and easy to carry. I have not developed any skin rashes or infections. Post-surgery, it feels awkward to accept yourself, but the kit helps you feel complete once again.”
One of the heartwarming instances for Dr Mehrotra is the feedback he received after a seminar. He recalls, “Our kit user came up to me and thanked me for saying how she was no longer hesitant to hug her daughter without the child finding that she had lost a breast.”
With one in every 28 women in India diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, this kit is proving to be a game changer by giving back survivors their individuality, confidence, and dignity.
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(Edited by Shruti Singhal)