One in eight American women will develop breast cancer in their lifetimes — and those who have dealt with the disease firsthand know that it’s dramatically life-changing in a variety of ways. Many go through breast reconstruction, surgery, or a mastectomy (or two), and pain or discomfort becomes part of their everyday lives. And, common things like clothing — specifically, well-fitting undergarments — are typically hard to find.
Five years ago, Dana Donofree created fashion brand AnaOnoTM. As a breast cancer survivor herself, she wanted to outfit women who had experienced the same issues. Today, her line offers bras for individuals who have undergone just about any kind of breast surgery (and they sell underwear, loungewear, and swimwear, too).
But Donofree herself offers so much more than empowering garments for women. We caught up with her after AnaOno’s third annual New York Fashion WeekTM show held on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, for which the models were all cancer patients. There, she shared her perspective on beauty routines, breast cancer, bras, and recovery. Read on for our one-on-one with the Philadelphia-based trailblazer.
Spotlyte: Tell us about the show.
Dana Donofree: We joined together with an organization called #CancerlandTM, which aims to provoke accountable actions toward a cure. We [also] like to join with METAvivor® to raise money for research dollars for metastatic breast cancer.
This year, all patient models are suffering from Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer disease, so that means [it may be] terminal. It’s life-threatening. It has left its host site outside of the breast, and it’s started to infiltrate other parts of the body. That’s when breast cancer [can be fatal]. So, all of these patients are facing life-threatening disease, [yet] got up on the runway at New York Fashion Week, and used their bodies to share a message and a story — and to hopefully provoke some change.
Spotlyte: You have gone through it, too.
DD: I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 27. I’m coming up on my nine year anniversary right now, and I’ve had no evidence of disease since. Getting diagnosed at 27 is a completely different time in your life. You’re starting your career. You’re starting your life. I was engaged to be married, and cancer put a pause on everything for me. After that, I went through all of my reconstructive surgery.
Spotlyte: What happened next?
DD: I rebuilt my breasts because I wanted to, and I found that bras didn’t fit me anymore. When I got dressed, I couldn’t identify myself anymore. So I started designing intimates for myself [and others]. [I design for] the woman that was reconstructed. No one was thinking of us. Here we are today, five years later with AnaOno, dressing women around the world with breast reconstruction, no breasts, with lumpectomies, with everything. We all have different needs than what’s available to the traditional market.
Spotlyte: How many women have you reached and have bought your bras?
Spotlyte: Have there been any outstanding, inspiring stories that you’ve heard recently?
DD: Every customer, every patient: their story is unique, and it’s inspiring. There are always going to be some that stand out to you. One in particular is a fitting I did with a woman who brought in her daughter and her husband. She was very, very nervous about finding a bra. She hadn’t been able to find one since her reconstructive surgery, and it was really damaging her self-esteem. I took her into the fitting [room], and had her try on several bras. She asked me, “Can I go outside and show my husband?” I said, “Absolutely. Go outside and show your husband.” She wrote me a letter later.
Spotlyte: What did it say?
DD: Her daughter had said to her, “Mommy, that’s the first time I’ve seen you smile since you got breast cancer.” I got this in a handwritten letter after the fitting, thanking me for giving the time and for allowing her into my space to do this. And her eight-year-old daughter saw that. I just think that’s really powerful. It can really change the way we look at ourselves and how we live our lives, and it’s a really positive thing for us.
Spotlyte: How did beauty contribute to your recovery?
DD: Finding your new beauty when you’re a cancer patient is incredibly difficult. I mean, you [can] lose everything. You [might] lose your hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and then your breasts. You’re constantly seeking what is beautiful and [asking] what can you use. When you’re a cancer patient, maybe your lotion or your makeup that you were using before is no longer working for you. Or you want to draw on your eyebrows, but you’ve never drawn on your eyebrows before. You have to go through all these transitions to understand: how am I supposed to be me now? You have to figure it all out again.
Spotlyte: Clothing definitely plays a part.
DD: What we do at AnaOno, that’s a piece of that puzzle — when you feel good on the inside, you want to project and look good on the outside. If you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin, and you don’t feel like you can express yourself through your clothing, everything kind of trickles behind that — not in a super positive way, necessarily.
Spotlyte: Do you have any advice for anyone going through that transition or treatment right now, and struggling to find their new beauty routine?
DD: I really encourage every patient to do what makes them happy. If waking up in the morning and putting on mascara or drawing on your eyebrows or putting some blush on your cheeks bring you joy, don’t give it up because you feel or look sick. And don’t feel guilty about it. We’re allowed to feel beautiful. That doesn’t stop because you have cancer. It’s hard because sometimes you feel guilty about that: “Why do I care what I look like? I have cancer.” You absolutely should care. It’s your self-identification. It’s your expression. Celebrate that.
Spotlyte: What beauty products, makeup, and skincare do you use in your daily routine? And how has that changed?
DD: I try to use as many organic products as possible. I try not to use all the processed products that I was using before I had cancer, and a lot of it is using those organic lotions and creams and deodorants. I actually have better skin! I’ve seen an improvement in my overall being by changing my routine. Deodorant was the hardest, but it was the first I had to figure out — there were stinky moments and non-stinky moments. You’ve got to figure out what works for you! With skincare, it’s great to use oils. I use brown sugar now to exfoliate my face. You don’t need everything to be processed. There are so many home remedies that you can use.
Spotlyte: What items are you using that don’t come from your pantry?
DD: They’re all small brands that I love. One of them is a serum. It smells earthy and I love it. I actually got my deodorant from a tiny North Carolina skincare company that did an amazing tea tree deodorant.
Spotlyte: Do you participate in medispa services, like lasers or facials?
DD: To me, facials are a requirement. My skin has changed so much since chemotherapy. Everytime your hormones shift with chemotherapy, your skin wants to go crazy. I always treat myself to facials. That’s what helps me feel like I’m taking good care of myself.
Spotlyte: Anything else you’d like to add about beauty, confidence, and empowerment?
DD: Beauty comes from within. You’ve got to believe it, you’ve got to want to own it, and you can’t feel bad about it. We’re so often shamed that we want to feel and look good, but we don’t need to be ashamed about that. If it makes you happy, you should absolutely do it — no matter what it takes. I felt horrible because I was asking my doctor for bimatoprost lash growth serum when I was losing my eyelashes. But, I was losing my eyelashes! I wanted my eyelashes! I shouldn’t feel guilty about that. You’ve got to do what your heart tells you to do — and be proud of that.