This is the story of a woman who refused to allow breast cancer to overtake her. Instead, she found purpose and strength from her ordeal. She used it to reach out her hand to other women by creating a unique line of breast cancer lingerie.
Dana Donofree was just a day from her 28th birthday and with only two months before her wedding, she was diagnosed with infiltrative ductal carcinoma. The diagnosis was quickly followed by a bilateral mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and a “grueling regimen of chemotherapy.”
As many women know too well, Dana’s life was never going to be the same. The process of finding her inner strength took on many different forms during Dana’s battle. First, it was important for her to find some kind of control in a situation with very little control. Dana wanted to rebuild her confidence. After her reconstructive surgery, Dana made the bold choice to forego a nipple tattoo and went in an entirely different direction.
Dana’s Creativity Awakens
Dana explains her unusual decision:
“I needed to feel whole and feel closure after the mastectomy and implant reconstruction. I personally wasn’t interested in nipple reconstruction or a nipple tattoo. I wanted to do something a little different and have something beautiful to look at every day. When I got my mastectomy tattoos, it wasn’t nearly as popular or as accessible as it it now. I wasn’t even sure other women were even doing it, but I figured, if they can tattoo a nipple on a reconstructed breast, they can probably tattoo something else; something I preferred to have instead. It was also very important to me emotionally to be able to take control of this part of my life. I wanted to make a decision that wasn’t selected from doctors’ options or wasn’t one I was being told specifically to make. It was a liberating experience, and it gave me back a sense of my own identity. Instead of waking up every morning looking in the mirror to see a scarred body, I woke up to a beautiful cherry blossom ‘tree of life.’ It stood for and represented strength, determination and rebirth. And it is what made my day, every day.”
After reconstruction, there was no hiding the fact that Dana’s body had changed and she could no longer fit into her old drawerful of bras and lingerie she loved to wear. As fate would have it, Dana was a fashion and design graduate from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Again, she made the decision to take control, and founded AnaOno, a company dedicated to designing new lines of bras and lingerie for women who are fighting or have fought breast cancer. The goal is simple: to bring back the feeling of beauty into their lives.
Enter AnaOno Breast Cancer Lingerie
Wanting to design the right styles and to use materials that would combine comfort and sexiness, Donofree enlisted the opinions of friends who had undergone different surgeries, basing design decisions on their feedback. This emotional process would prove to be successful.
With the success of the company has also come opportunities for more personal outreach into the breast cancer community. Since creating the AnaOno line, Dana has participated in Love, Twelve, a portrait project which gives cancer survivors an empowering “bombshell” portrait experience. She is also active in the breast cancer support community and has been featured in USA Today’s Modern Woman magazine.
We were excited for the opportunity to ask Dana some questions and share more of her journey with you.
I’m Taking Charge: What moment in your cancer journey inspired you to pursue a line of bras and lingerie?
Dana Donofree: Once I really knew, understood and accepted the fact my body had changed forever and that I wasn’t going to look like who I was before cancer or be “normal” again, I knew it was time. I stopped fighting with the traditional lingerie market and trying to fit into something appropriate for my life and style that wasn’t there. Once I let go and stopped swimming upstream, I realized while I couldn’t go back, I could forge forward. It was in that moment I knew I had to do something, and that first something was designing a bra that fit and was pretty. It was a big step toward reestablishing my body confidence. I also thought if I was feeling this way, other women were too, and we all deserved to feel beautiful and empowered again.
I’m Taking Charge: How has creating this line changed your life? What did it give you back after fighting cancer?
Dana Donofree: It has given me purpose and enabled me to have a career and a business I feel really proud of. I never take credit for changing a woman’s life, but our customers do tell me that. Even if we played a small part in restoring them to wholeness, it is a crucial part. Our sexuality and identity is a big part of our survivorship and our emotional well-being after breast cancer. We need to continue to explore all aspects of it, find new options and discover a better way, instead of feeling like we don’t have any options to feel beautiful or sexual. Self-esteem after cancer was a very real struggle for me. This journey has helped me learn to love my body, and it’s a wonderful feeling to be able to give back and help other women going through the same emotions and guide them to that rediscovery as well.
I’m Taking Charge: What does your lingerie line offer to the woman who is a breast cancer survivor?
Dana Donofree: We have design and construction that is specific to certain needs women may have after surgery, but it’s also not just about fit and comfort. That certainly is a big part of it, of course, because there isn’t anything else like it out there, but it also represents a small piece of the life she had before cancer came crashing into her world. It’s an opportunity to feel normal-ish again and feminine. That excitement of exuding beauty, confidence and empowerment because you are wearing a beautiful piece of lingerie should not be taken away just because you have or had cancer.
I’m Taking Charge: What is a customer looking for in AnaOno?
Dana Donofree: An experience. A renewal. A chance to see and be the woman they felt they once were [and] that is hiding in there somewhere. AnaOno is MY alter-ego. And having an alter-ego is a lot of fun; she gets to make all the trouble you can’t make in your real life. She gets to be the woman you want to be. And being strong and beautiful when you feel you have been held down by a cancer diagnosis can be very liberating! We also hope they find our sisterhood. We have incredible supporters and customers who are more than willing to reach out, tell their story, and help a fellow survivor. We want them to find their beauty, their fantasy, their confidence, and their sister squad, and we want that feeling to continue after they receive our products.
I’m Taking Charge: Do you think your customers gain strength?
Dana Donofree: Yes, absolutely. They have shared their stories with me directly, such as, “I feel fierce,” and “I feel beautiful for the first time post-surgery,” and “Does AnaOno have another one?” and they are very quick to share that empowerment with other women. One of the most beautiful things I ever experienced was when I saw one woman recommend, in Italian, our collections to another woman on an Italian news source post about breast cancer and mastectomies on Facebook. That’s a moment that cements our reach and what our products mean around the world.
I’m Taking Charge: Are you thinking beyond bras and breast cancer lingerie?
Dana Donofree: Yes. I am actually in the process of beginning to roll out several new product launches. First, we are introducing a new line called the MAKEMERRYⓇ Collection. Designed by a radiation oncologist who wanted her patients undergoing radiation therapy to feel not only comfortable, but beautiful as well, these patented products give a woman something to wear during radiation treatment that soothes her sensitive and scarred skin. I am also launching a RecoveryWear™ line, a loungewear collection focused on helping women feeling beautiful, confident, and comfortable while healing from mastectomy surgery, treatment, and beyond. It’s important to me to focus on our survivorship and not just start and end with our cancer treatment. I want my clients to be proud of what they own, whether they choose something for after surgery, during
chemotherapy and radiation, or for the rest of their life after cancer treatment. We are also planning a swimwear line and are excited to introduce a pocketed line for women using breast forms early next year. With the incredible support of our community and many others, we are grateful to continue our mission and move forward with more options and products [in addition to breast cancer lingerie].
I’m Taking Charge: Finally, do you gain inspiration from the women whose lives you touch?
Dana Donofree: I will never forget this one woman, among many of the women who touch and inspire me. When I met her, I could see the struggle she’d had with her identity and her treatment post-cancer. When we first “met”, she was actually living outside of the United States. The Today Show personality Hoda Kotb had retweeted a post about our launch party, and by doing that, she connected me [and AnaOno breast cancer lingerie] with women around the world, and one survivor in particular stuck out. She wrote to me, telling me her story and her experience with having inflammatory breast cancer and how it left her feeling mutilated and incomplete. She was unable to have reconstructive surgery but still wanted to feel sexy and beautiful. We corresponded for a while, but it wasn’t until a year later when I met her in person at the Young Survival Coalition (YSC) conference. She introduced herself to me, and it hit me. I said, “Wait, have we been emailing?” Her face lit up, and she said “Yes, that’s me. I wasn’t sure you remember me!” And I said something to the effect of “How could I forget?” When I heard the sniffling coming from her in my pop-up dressing room, I invited myself in. I saw her face, and she didn’t have to say a word. I looked at her, and immediately tears came to my eyes. She looked at me, smiled a smile I will NEVER forget, and said, “I feel beautiful.” That was it; that was all I needed. I knew how much that feeling meant to her… As we are hugging, sharing this beautiful moment with each other, I realized exactly what I was doing, and it was not just selling a bra, I was giving something more. You see, she had NO breasts. She had a bilateral mastectomy, that quite honestly left her body in a rough state, and the experience had been taxing on her and really taking a toll on her self-confidence. She was in the process of planning her wedding, and her next comment to me was, “I now know I can wear something beautiful for my husband on our wedding night.” I cannot even express how grateful and how full my heart was in that moment. The even better news was, she changed me forever, too. She helped me push the message of AnaOno forward. Best of all? I got to hug her again this year, at the most recent YSC conference, and she told me her wedding night was beautiful, and she thanked me for that! It was humbling and amazing at the same time.
Finding yourself in need of some retail therapy? Shop AnaOno at www.anaono.com.