In 2015, life, as they knew it, changed for the worse when Akriti Gupta’s (then 17) father, Arun Gupta, was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer. Treatment was to commence immediately, and the following nine months saw the teenager and her mother shuttle between home and the hospital. Come rain come shine, notwithstanding the emotional and physical toll it took on their bodies, the two were determined to put up a brave face for their loved one.
It was during a routine interaction with the oncologist that her mother, Kavita Gupta, became familiar with the challenges faced by breast cancer survivors. “The doctor mentioned that several breast cancer patients undergo a mastectomy, which has a detrimental effect on their mental health considering they look different post-surgery. What adds to their challenges is the lack of comfortable prosthesis and lingerie, which can help them feel confident again. This conversation stuck with my mother, and she discussed it with me,” the 22-year-old tells us over a phone call.
Subsequent interactions with patients revealed that while there are options available in the market, they are uncomfortable and expensive. “Many women told us that they opted for stuffed toys and plastic to be able to achieve the look of a bra. They even mentioned that most bras available didn’t allow them to wear what they wanted to. For instance, there was none available if one was looking to wear a plunging neckline or wanted a seamless finish,” Gupta says.
Here’s when the mother-daughter duo took up a challenge—to improve the quality of life for such survivors, and once again make them confident in their own skin. As her father continued treatment, the Gupta women began building prototypes, and would regularly ask doctors and survivors for feedback. After various levels of tweaking and refining, they were ready with a finished product. Thus in March 2019, Canfem was born.
Why the name, we ask, and Gupta explains, “It can be interpreted in two ways—one ne, ‘can’ stands for cancer and ‘fem’ is for femme, meaning catering to women cancers. Second, it could also mean ‘women can’.”
As of today, their technology (the two have applied for a patent) has been approved by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, and Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, and over 9,000 products have been sold.
Canfem specialises in two products—breast prosthesis and a cancer brassiere and a mastectomy bra with pockets. The products are available on their website across sizes in three shapes (triangle, round, and drop), and are priced between Rs 499 and Rs 1,999.
The products can be shipped across India, and the team also offers an online consultation to help the patient/survivor decide on the ideal fit. “A survivor had quit her teaching job post mastectomy because she wasn’t confident to step out into the world without her breasts. Now, she is a peer counsellor and helps others. In another case, a woman had once told us ‘What is a woman without her breasts’, now she is proud to flaunt her curves. Examples like these motivate us to keep going,” Gupta says.
While the mother-daughter duo help cancer warriors on one hand, they are also on mission to empower women of rural India. Their manufacturing unit located in Faridabad is run by an all-women team. “Making every woman atmanirbhar is the need of the hour, isn’t it? This also gives them a sense of identity which is the India we should build together,” says the 22-year-old.
Going forward, Gupta is looking at a cross country expansion and, if things go as per plan, will add two more products to the venture by March 2021. “Despite increased awareness, breast cancer continues to be a taboo subject in several sections of society, making it difficult for us to reach out to them. But, we are determined to keep going. We conduct webinars and workshops to send across the message that this is a safe space for them,” she says.
While Arun Gupta continues to battle cancer, the Gupta women, who have experience firsthand the consequences of treatment, and the resulting quality of life, know that now is not the time to stop.