FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — As Suzy Woolam worked with breast-cancer patients, the one thing she heard most often was the way the disease sometimes took away, not just flesh and tissue but the very essence of their female identity.

"You can go through treatment, you can get your life back, as it is, but you never feel like a woman again," Woolam said patients told her.

She's a massage therapist and preferred provider with Mary Washington Hospital's Integrative Medicine Program at the Regional Cancer Center. The program combines standard cancer treatment with complementary therapies, such as reiki. That's a technique in which Woolam uses light pressure to help a patient relax and feel a sense of harmony.

Woolam also is an avid knitter, and as she pondered ways to help women who'd lost a breast to cancer, her thoughts turned to needles and yarn. Not all women who had mastectomies opted for reconstruction surgery, for medical or personal reasons.

The breast prosthetics that women slipped into their bras were heavy and hot against the skin. The ones made for swimsuits felt like they were filled with sand.

Woolam wondered if a handmade version, lovingly created by crafters, would fill the bill — and fit the bra.

That's when Knitted Knockers came along.

In 2015, Woolam organized Fred Knits Knockers, a local branch of the Knitted Knockers Support Foundation. Friends and fellow knitters got instructions and started counting stitches to create soft and shapely pieces that could be inserted into bras, from A cups to DDs.

As word of the project spread, she asked Cathy Mitchell, owner of Untangled Purls on Cowan Boulevard in Fredericksburg, if she might offer a 10-percent discount on material.

Mitchell said she couldn't do that.

She wanted to give knitters the whole kit for free. That was in 2016, and the knitters estimate they've created more than 500 pairs of knitted prosthetics since then.

They're free to breast-cancer patients and are available at the Regional Cancer Center, Surgical Associates, Hemotology-Oncology Associates of Fredericksburg and the Scenter of Town, Woolam's business.

And, as Gin Schaffer, the cancer center's coordinator of integrative medicine, announced at a recent charity knit night at Untangled Purls, she'll be taking baskets of Knitted Knockers to Stafford Hospital and beyond.

"I was in Montross last night, and your boobs will be going to the Northern Neck," she said excitedly, about MWH's regional cancer center there.

Woolam got tears in her eyes at the news. Mitchell hugged her. The rest of the women in the shop, which has become quite the community gathering for knitters of all ages, grinned in gratitude to be part of it all.

"It's amazing," said Kathie Clifton, who said she got chills when she heard how popular the knitted pieces have become. "It just makes you feel like you're helping someone else."

Chris Adams remembered a family member who lost both breasts, years ago. In those days, doctors waited 18 months before doing reconstructive surgery, and women had no choice but to live with their changed bodies until then.

Adams and her relative had gone shopping for clothes.

"I remember her crying in the dressing room," Adams said. "That always stuck with me."

Schaffer was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, and while she didn't need a mastectomy, she understands the emotional and physical toll the disease takes on a woman's body.

"It is brutal," she said.

As women try to absorb information about chemotherapy or radiation, operations or reconstructive procedures, she loves the idea they can get a soft and colorful pair of prosthetics that feel good against their tender skin.

"It was made with love and there's a note in it, saying, 'We're thinking about you,' " Schaffer said. "It's light, it's soft, it's different, it became a game changer."

Schaffer realized how vital the knitted pieces had become to local patients when doctors and surgeons called her aside after their busy rounds and asked: "Hey, you got another basket of those Knockers?"

Mitchell, the store owner, laughed with other needleworkers who jokingly referred to themselves as "old biddies knitting . . ." well, you can fill in the rest. She said there's so much to cry about, in terms of this disease, it's important to laugh when you can.

"You've gotta keep the sense of humor in it because it's so serious," Mitchell said.