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JINAN - Qi Lifang was working as a teacher when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Today, after beating the disease, she creates clothes that help fellow survivors regain their self-esteem.
Qi runs a business in Yantai, Shandong province, that sells products ranging from silicone breast prostheses to specially designed bras, nightgowns and swimsuits for women recovering from a mastectomy.
The 55-year-old found a small hollow spot on her skin in 2004. Four days later, doctors amputated her right breast.
Qi went to stores in search of a bra that would fit, but failed. She had to use fiberfill, cotton and towels to stuff her bra to recreate the weight and feel of a natural breast.
"It"s neither comfortable nor natural. When I raised my arm, I was always worried the towel in the bra would move," she said.
Then, in 2009, a fellow patient gave her a prosthetic breast as a gift.
"After fitting that first silicone gel prosthesis into a special bra, I felt I"d regained what I"d lost after the surgery," Qi said. "It weighed 260 grams and fit perfectly like it was tailor-made for me."
Word spread fast to other patients. Women asked Qi to help them buy silicone prostheses, which are usually custom-designed based on an individual"s height, age, weight and surgery. Before long, she was designing products in her garage.
She collected numerous homemade bras from customers. They included a sponge-padded bra cup or a vest with a pocket filled with synthetic fiber.
"These were our "breasts" when there were no silicone prostheses," Qi said.
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women in China. According to a 2017 cancer report, about 279,000 new cases are reported each year.
To increase public awareness of the disease, Qi set up chat groups on QQ and WeChat, attracting about 20,000 cancer patients. She has also released 126 audio lectures via the audiostreaming service Ximalaya, receiving more than 600,000 hits.
"In China, patients often do not get tested until it is too late. Regular breast examinations are very important," she said.
Qi said she has decided to lead a meaningful life. She exercises, climbs mountains and rides a bicycle. She even completed a cycling tour of France in 2010, riding 3,300 kilometers in 21 days.
"Breasts do not define you," she said. "If we cannot extend our life span, why not make it more complete?"