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Published on October 17, 2017

Dr Tricia Merrigan and Shirley McCann

Breast-Cancer Survivor’s Passion for Patients Found in Every Stitch

Chance has a way of bringing out the best in all of us.

An unplanned visit from a friend led Spirit Lake, Iowa native Shirley McCann into the lives of more than 1,000 breast-cancer survivors. While she was wintering in Arizona, a neighbor stopped by to show McCann a project.

“She brought me a Knitted Knocker she had partially constructed, and I started to go to our knitting group and redid this one,” McCann said. “That started things out – making that one. But it created a monster!”

A compassion monster of sorts; the first Knitted Knocker she completed has grown to a total of more than 1,038 in three years.

Knitted Knockers serve as external prostheses for women who have had mastectomies, most commonly from breast cancer treatment. McCann fell in love with the work, had time to make it happen and now serves women who need her help year-round, in a variety of locations.

She makes them for patients at Lakes Regional Healthcare Avera in Spirit Lake as well as at Avera Medical Group Spencer in Spencer, Iowa. That wasn’t enough for McCann, and now she provides them for patients in Sioux Falls’ Avera Cancer Institute as well.

Her connection to the Prairie Center and the work of physicians there is quite personal.

“I went there in September 2014 and that’s when I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said. “It was an opportunity for me to really understand how cancer-fighting communities form.”

After her surgery, McCann learned she would still be able to return to her winter home in Arizona because she wouldn’t need chemotherapy. Her care team was able to get her radiation therapy set up in Arizona, and many friends came forward to help her with her daily rides to receive that treatment.

“One of the women I met through Knitted Knockers, she knew about my surgery and I had not even told her – she saw my name on a prayer chain list,” she said. “That same person had survived her breast cancer. She gave me important tips on dealing with the burns that come sometimes come with radiation.”

That sort of support – from Tricia Merrigan, MD, and Amy Krie, MD, her physicians, along with her care team at Avera and all of her friends, may be part of the reason for her dedicated knitting. McCann, who is 80, said there’s history, too.

“This has become a passion for me, but I’ve been volunteering at the Lakes Regional Healthcare Avera for 17 years, and it is fun to introduce folks to the Knitted Knockers program – you’d be surprised how many people learn of it and then want to make a financial contribution to me, and others, so we can get more yarn,” she said. “It’s also an amazing gift to share – I get thank-you cards all the time from women all over the country.”

Tricia Merrigan, MD, FACS, is McCann’s physician, and she said she respects the contributions McCann continues to make for patients.

“You can see the pride and passion she brings to making Knitted Knockers and it’s comparable to the same passion and zeal she brought to her own cancer diagnosis,” she said. “When she comes to her appointment and brings us more Knockers, it’s amazing. Not everyone would give back to strangers in that way – we are blessed by her talent and her generous spirit.”

Merrigan was moved so much she personally donated to McCann’s efforts, helping fund her purchases of the special yarn and other materials that go into these knitting projects.

A closer-to-home situation brought the importance of her work back to her last summer. She saw an old friend who had a mastectomy and was using a prosthesis made of rubber. McCann told her to come over.

“She came to my house and whipped out that thing and tried one I had made,” she said. “She said oh, that’s so much better. It made me happy that she was able to get that sort of help.”

While McCann feels comfortable keeping up with the needs in her local community, she said crafty knitters who want to help are always needed.

“I have the time and the desire, and if you do, too, you can join us,” she said. “You can really help women out.”

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