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Breast Cancer Inspired Me to Start a Lingerie Company
Dana Donofree
February 7, 2020

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Dana Donofree is a designer and founder of AnaOno. After being diagnosed with stage I estrogen-receptor-positive, HER2-positive breast cancer almost 10 years ago at the age of 27, Dana began to design her first pieces to meet her need for sexy, beautiful lingerie during a recovery period that she calls “anything but sexy and beautiful.”

She has made it her mission to design lingerie specifically for women who have had breast surgery, breast reconstruction, or are living with other conditions that cause pain because she believes that they shouldn't have to compromise between comfort and beauty.

On February 9, for the fourth year in a row, AnaOno is partnering with #Cancerland to put on a fashion show during New York Fashion Week to raise funds for METAvivor. All the models in the show are women who have been touched in some way by breast cancer or its risk — from previvors to people with early-stage disease to people with stage IV disease — to start new conversations between all these groups.

Listen to the podcast to hear Dana talk about:

  • her diagnosis and treatment and how it inspired her to start AnaOno
  • where the AnaOno name came from
  • The show during Fashion Week and what she hopes to accomplish with it
  • her tips for someone who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer

Running time: 29:32

Thank you for listening to the Breastcancer.org podcast. Please subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, TuneIn, or wherever you listen to podcasts. To share your thoughts about this or any episode, leave feedback on the podcast episode landing page on our website.

Show Full Transcript

Jamie Depolo: Hello, and welcome to the Breastcancer.org podcast. Our guest today is Dana Donofree, designer and founder of AnaOno. After being diagnosed with stage I estrogen-receptor-positive, HER2-positive breast cancer almost 10 years ago, at the age of 27, Dana began to design her first pieces to meet her need for sexy, beautiful lingerie during a recovery period that she calls anything but sexy and beautiful. She has made it her mission to design lingerie specifically for women who have had breast surgery, breast reconstruction, or are living with other conditions that cause pain because she believes that they should have to compromise between comfort and beauty.

On February 9, for the fourth year in a row, AnaOno is partnering with #Cancerland to put on a fashion show during New York Fashion Week to raise funds for METAvivor. All of the models in the show are women who have been touched in some way by breast cancer or its risk, from previvors to people with early-stage disease to people with stage IV disease, to start new conversations between all these groups.

Dana, welcome to the podcast. I'm so thrilled to be talking to you.

Dana Donofree: Oh, Jamie, thanks for having me. I love you guys there at Breastcancer.org, so really appreciate the support.

Jamie Depolo: Oh, thanks! So, from reading around about you I know that you wanted to be an artist and went to art school, but did you always want to be a fashion designer? Was that kind of always there, too?

Dana Donofree: If my mother was here, she would tell you very embarrassing stories of me that include sketch pads and binders — which, by the way, she still has to this day — of evening gowns that I would design that were available in beautiful crayon colors like green and yellow and purple! And actually I learned how to sew from my grandmother, who was a tailor, as well as my mother, and I think I was at a sewing machine since the day I feel like I was old enough, or my mom trusted me enough to do it. So it's always been a lifelong dream of mine. I've always been a fashion designer at heart and feel so blessed that I actually get to do it in real life.

Jamie Depolo: Wow, that's amazing! So, kind of to tie into that, too, on how you started AnaOno, if you're comfortable talking about it, can you tell us a little bit about your diagnosis and treatment? You were young. Did you have family history? Did you know you were at higher-than-average risk?

Dana Donofree: I was 27 years old when I found my lump. I had no family history, not at least a strong enough one that anybody had a medical concern about it. My mom's sister had breast cancer when she was in her early 30s, now nearly 40 years ago, so she was also very young. But we didn't have a cancerous family. We have a lot of heart disease, and that's very real for us, so I know about that part, but when it came to cancer it was a complete and utter shock. There was no reason why I would be monitored for it. I wasn't doing monthly breast exams. It just wasn't on the radar at all. And when I found the lump in my breast — in the shower, actually, completely on accident — I never thought it would be breast cancer because I just… you know, there was no reason for it to be breast cancer, especially at 27 years old.

Jamie Depolo: Right. Right. And you said you didn't have a family history, so what did you think it was, and did you kind of put off going to the doctor at all?

Dana Donofree: It's really interesting because I live a life where everything kind of happens for a reason. And my sister and my best friend had literally just both simultaneously made calls to me a few weeks before I found my lump to tell me that they had found lumps in their breasts and they had gone to the gynecologist, and they were told that they have this dense breast tissue, which a lot of young women have, and there was nothing to be concerned about. And they gave me these stories on very separate circumstances, so when I actually got and found my lump, I said, “Oh, well, you know what? They went to the doctor. I should go to the doctor, too.” Not for anything other than just the fact that they did, and I did. I don't know if I wouldn't have gotten those calls, if I would've actually felt the lump was anything or even would've called the doctor. Because again, there was no reason for me to be concerned about something like that.

Jamie Depolo: Got it. And was your doctor immediately suspicious or did it take a little while?

Dana Donofree: You know, it's very funny, because I had… I'm a self-proclaimed workaholic, and I've been in this industry for a very long time, so my life is just crazy. I would go to work one day, and I would be on a plane the next day going to a business meeting or flying halfway around the world. It wasn't really new to me. I called and made the appointment with my doctor, and I got called away for a business meeting, so I called the office and I said, “You know, I'm not going to be able to make my appointment. I have a last-minute business meeting. Can I reschedule it next week?” And they said, “Well, you can but the doctor's not available, but the nurse practitioner is.”

And this is in 2010, so nurse practitioners were kind of just coming into the fold, and I just thought, “Okay. Whatever. They're going to send me to the nurse. They must not be worried about it.” And I say to this day that she's the woman that saved my life because she was a young woman. She was new to her practice. She was very diligent — no offense against my close-to-retiring, gray-haired gynecologist — but she said to me, “You know, you're so young. The probability is minuscule that this is anything. But if I was your age and I had a lump I would want to know.” And I said, “Okay, so let's do this then,” and we kind of all just went into it very casually thinking that it was going to be nothing but it was better to know than not to know. And then one test led to the next test, that led to the next test, that led to the eventual diagnosis.

Jamie Depolo: Okay, and if you recall — most people do — what was your initial reaction when they told you it was cancer?

Dana Donofree: It was interesting to me because I knew before they ever told me, and I think if you pay attention to humans around you, you can see into them in a lot of cases. And I was at… my course was to do the ultrasound — because the ultrasound, as long as it was clear, I wouldn't have to be “traumatized” by the mammogram — and the ultrasound led to a moment where they said, “You know, we know that your mammogram is scheduled for later this afternoon but we think you need to stay and do it now.”

And I stayed and I got my mammogram, and I was probably in and out of that horrible, cold locker room 2 or 3 times because they couldn't… my breasts were so dense. I was not a large-busted woman. I was very fit. I was very in shape. My lump was almost all the way up into my armpit. They couldn't get me into the mammography machine, so they kept sending me in, and kept sending me in because they were seeing a hint of the lump, but they weren't getting it all the way into the space. And I knew in that moment that something was wrong. I knew that that was not the protocol of what people do if they're just okay.

And I got — actually, I was away in Ohio. I was having my bridal shower with my mom and my soon-to-be mother-in-law, because we had a wedding that was planned to happen in 2 months. And my nurse practitioner called me and told me that the test results were in for my biopsy and I had breast cancer. And that was the moment that changed my life forever.

Jamie Depolo: Okay. And your diagnosis and then subsequent treatment is what inspired you to start AnaOno, so can you talk a little bit about that?

Dana Donofree: You know, I had options, but I didn't really have options. The lumpectomy was not a good choice for me with my diagnosis. I had a very high-grade… my Oncotype came back very high. I had kind of all of the cards stacked up against me when I was making my decision. And actually, when I had gone and gotten my chest MRI, they found my lump in what we thought was my healthy breast. And I had to go through the whole rigmarole all over again for my other breast. And I thought to myself, “If this is my future, if every 6 months I'm going to sit in this seat, I'm going to get a chest MRI, or I'm going to get a mammography, and it's always going to flare something on my healthy breast. And then I'm back into a needle biopsy, and then I'm back to waiting. Like, I've just spent 2 months with the highest stress I've ever experienced in my entire life, and I'm going to do that every 6 months? Nah. No thanks.”

So, I chose the double mastectomy, even though I was 27 years old and my other breast was “healthy,” even though I had a flare up that alerted the MRI. And I'm so thankful that I did, because I wouldn't have been able to live with a healthy breast for the last 10 years, I know that. The stress and all of the other treatments and doctor's appointments. It's too much.

So yeah, I had the double mastectomy. I got implant reconstruction. I lost both of my nipples because of the reconstruction process of where my cancer was located, and because the question of the lump behind the nipple on the other healthy breast, and I had six rounds of chemotherapy. I had a year of Herceptin. I was very fortunate, I didn't have any lymph node involvement, so I slipped out of the radiation world, but everything else was pretty intense for me.

Jamie Depolo: And so did you have — I don't want to say a problem — but difficulty finding lingerie, bras, that fit and were comfortable, that were pretty? I mean, that's what it sounds like.

Dana Donofree: Yeah. You know, 10 years ago… I mean, the advancements that have happened in 10 years are also just incredible, wildly incredible. But 10 years ago they used an expander that was… I called them my LEGO boobs. They were like building blocks. Sometimes SpongeBob SquareBoobs. That also came up.

Jamie Depolo: That's a good one. That's a good one.

Dana Donofree: Yeah. It was literally like building blocks on your chest. You would fill in the bottom layer with the saline, and then the second layer would expand, so you kind of had two rectangles on your chest, and it made sense to me during the expansion process that I couldn't wear bra, because how do you fit a square peg into a round hole? It only makes sense. So I kind of kept trudging along, and I said, “You know what? Once I get the implants, I'll be fine. Once I get the implants, I'll be fine. This is just some circumstance, a medical procedure. It's a fraction of time in my life.” And then I got the implants, and I realized that I wasn't the same anymore. I didn't have natural breasts anymore. They didn't squish, or move, or manipulate.

I asked my doctor, and I said, “What can I do?” And his advice was not to wear an underwire that would cause too much pain and they wouldn't fit appropriately, that I might have a difficult time finding a molded-cup bra, so his suggestion to me was to wear a sports bra or wear nothing at all. Because I didn't need a bra after breast reconstruction. And I was like, “Okay. That's cool.” Like, I don't wear bras on Saturday night because I think it's sexy, but I've got to go to work. I've got to live my life. I'm not showing up to my board meeting negotiating millions of dollars with no bra on. That just isn't, like, mentally where I want to be.

So I set out to find solutions that worked for me, and I really just… I came up with nothing. And that's when I knew I had to do something about it.

Jamie Depolo: Okay. So before, when you were working before, were you a lingerie designer or were you designing other things, and then did you kind of switch, or was it always lingerie?

Dana Donofree: I was in high fashion for women's clothing. Designed thousands of dollars of gowns. I was in women's knitwear. I was in juniors. I even made baby accessories. So I had technically never designed a bra before. But my couture background of a long stint I had in New York City, we actually made bras inside a lot of our evening wear. But really when it came to making a bra, a bra was brand new to me.

Jamie Depolo: Okay, but you had in your mind what you wanted to be comfortable but yet also sexy, right?

Dana Donofree: I knew my starting point was to not identify what was going to work for me because that didn't exist. I knew what I needed to identify first was what didn't work for me. And when I found out what didn't work for me, as a designer, I was able to apply those rules and say, “Okay, if I can't have an underwire, what do I need instead? If I can't have a molded cup, what do I need instead? If the bands around my rib cage cause too much pain, what do I need instead?” And answering all of those questions was what allowed me to kind of formulate the idea of what a new bra would look like without all of that structure.

And this is before bralettes were even on the market. I mean, there wasn't even an option to go find a “bralette.” I used that term as a fashion designer, but the layman consumer had no idea what that word was.

Jamie Depolo: Got it. Got it. Okay, and so I… Well first, I want to ask you, actually, where did the name AnaOno come from? Is that a play on your name or is that something else?

Dana Donofree: You're getting close. It's a version of my name, Dana Donofree, without the DDs.

Jamie Depolo: Oh, that's… I like it! Very, very, very clever. I like that.

Dana Donofree: The funny part is, if you knew me before cancer, you also knew I didn't have DDs. So there's actually a second joke if you're a friend of mine, but for the most part it's still funny.

Jamie Depolo: Okay. I like that. That's pretty good. So, I've looked at the website, and it seems like as each sort of year or section of time goes on — maybe a year is too long — there seem to be more and more different things. Like I noticed that you've introduced some sports bras and everything, which is very cool. Now, I have not had breast surgery, never been diagnosed, but there are some pieces in there that I think are beautiful and I would love to wear. And is that appropriate? Can people like me wear your lingerie?

Dana Donofree: Totally. And this is something that, I'll be honest, I never kind of really expected, but it's grown into it. And I tell people, “Just because I needed an alternative bra, I needed one, doesn't mean that you don't want one,” right?

So as women, in general, we're probably largely uncomfortable in our bras to being with. I've layered in surgery and scar tissue and fit and all of these other issues that I had to solve for myself and for others like me that have had breast surgery. But in reality, a lot of our bras women wear after their lumpectomies. And figuring they also have their natural breast left. There might be chunks or portions of it missing. Radiation can be a lot of damage to the skin, it can cause a lot of sensitivity where a traditional bra that's made out of polyester and scratchy materials and underwire is not comfortable to that woman. So it's a complex story for us to tell to kind of say, our bras are beyond just breast cancer because I think I do that with the lumpectomies and things like that, but in reality what's happened is there are so many alternative needs for women outside of the traditional marketplace.

I mean, sometimes we receive emails. I received an email from a mother whose daughter was 15 years old, and she was developing at two different rates. So she had an A cup on one side and a C cup on the other, and she wrote me an email, she goes, “Hey, I don't have breast cancer, but I'm shopping for my daughter, and here's my daughter's situation. And you're the only bras I can find that accommodate an asymmetrical chest.”

And so it's with these stories that we're getting now, as we're growing — women with open heart surgery, women with shoulder surgery, lung cancer patients. A lot of them have big sensitivity around their ribcage, they feel like breathing is difficult. Maybe they've had radiation. They just love it because of the softness and the comfort factor, so there's all sorts of alternatives, right, that we're trying to help support and address, so women can always feel comfortable and empowered.

Breast cancer brought me to this space, but AnaOno is much more than that.

Jamie Depolo: Got it. Okay, so let's talk about your Fashion Week show that's coming up on February 9, which is this Sunday. This is the fourth year in a row, correct, for you doing this show?

Dana Donofree: Yes.

Jamie Depolo: And it's a fundraiser for METAvivor. It's in collaboration with #Cancerland. So, let's go back. Tell me how this all started and what was the aim, besides raising money?

Dana Donofree: Yeah. You know, this started 4 years ago with a dear late friend of mine, Champagne Joy, who founded #Cancerland, which her goal was to really provoke accountable actions towards a cure. And we know that stage IV is horribly underfunded, and we know that there's a lot of work to do to eradicate our death rate year over year. It hasn't changed for 20 years since modern medicine has been introduced. And we don't spend enough money creating change for stage IV breast cancer, which is the only breast cancer that kills. And as a young patient myself, and as a young breast cancer patient with a very aggressive cancer, I've seen a lot of my friends pass away. And I can't stand by and just watch that. We have to do something about it, and this is my way of getting an opportunity to do something about it.

Champagne and I joined forces, and I think our first year was 12 models on the runway. It was really amazing. We knew the conversation every year changes, and the conversation and the point of the show changes, because we should be talking about new things. That's the energy behind #Cancerland, is shining a light on most things that are swept under the rug. And I realized when I launched AnaOno that people didn't really understand what breast cancer was. Because when I told people that I was making a bra for women with breast cancer they would say to me, “Well, why does she need a bra?” Or, “Why is it so different?” And I'm like, “Because she doesn't have any breasts, or they've been rebuilt, or…” I was explaining to everybody all of the surgical options.

And so anyways, we decided to show the world what cancer looked like, and we showed scars, and we showed mastectomy breasts, and we showed flat chests, and everybody was just like, “What? This is breast cancer?” Didn't even know that this was what was happening underneath all of these frilly pink ribbons.

So, that was our first year, and our second year we really tried to open up the conversation about metastatic breast cancer. A third of our models were metastatic, representing the 1 in 3 that will develop stage IV diagnoses throughout their lifetime. And we realized people weren't getting it yet. It was a little too soon. So last year we decided, let's just really knock everybody over the head so we could have a conversation about stage IV breast cancer, and we did. We put 24 models all faced with stage IV breast cancer on the runway last year. Sadly, since February of 2019, we've already lost three of them. And that's the reality behind what we do here, and with this disease, and the lives that it takes.

So, this year… I'm really excited about this year, because I think this is a very, very important conversation, especially to the metastatic community. We're all in these shoes for something that has changed or affected us in our life in one way, shape, form, or another. And it could be from receiving a genetic diagnosis, it could be an early-stage diagnosis like myself, or it could be a stage IV diagnosis. And the reality is, is that nobody's better off or worse off than the next person. We're all in these shoes, and we're all faced with something incredibly traumatic in our life, and we have to be here to support each other. So we can't allow for our community — when we need to be strong, and we need to see change, and we need to eradicate the disparities — to think the previvors don't have it hard enough, or for the previvors to think, “I never had cancer, I don't belong here,” or for a stage IV person to think, “I'm dying, I shouldn't be a burden on somebody else,” or for early-stage people to say, “I don't even want to look at metastatic breast cancer because I want to pretend it doesn't happen.”

We have to talk about all of these things, and we have to talk about them in a calm, supportive environment so we understand. Because when we're educated and we understand, we can be informed, and we can advocate and make change appropriately. And that's what we're really hoping to achieve this year, is put out the fears that we all face that we often don't say out loud because we're too afraid or too ashamed to say.

So if a previvor is afraid of a diagnosis, and a diagnosed is afraid of a recurrence, and a recurrence is afraid of death, aren't we all feeling those same feelings? We've just felt them at different times. And to be accepting of that, and to have that for one another and hold that space, I think, is going to be a really powerful and impactful moment.

Jamie Depolo: That sounds amazing, and I noticed the theme is #fearLESS, so kind of a play on fearless, so everybody has fewer fears, I guess, would be another way to say it.

In a little bit, I guess, lighter vein, it's amazing what you're doing with the show, but now all of these models in the show this year are women, as you said, touched by breast cancer, from previvors all the way to stage IV, but they're not models. This is probably the first time they've done something like this, right?

Dana Donofree: This is our first year, it is all brand new faces. It's all brand new patients. They are models! You know, they're teachers, they're lawyers. One's a cop. One's ex-military. It shocks me, right, that we all believe so hard that we need to do this, that it doesn't matter where you've come from.

I think that that's what's also amazing, is that we do go through a training. We have an incredible strut coach, her name is Lolita...

Jamie Depolo: Oh, it's called a strut coach. I've never… that's an amazing term. I've never heard that before.

Dana Donofree: Yes. She has faced her own turmoil in her life, and she shares that with everybody and teaches them how to strut through their pain. And it's an amazing, amazing opportunity for these women because that's… you just see them take hold of their lives. I get chills when I think about it and talk about it because you see them take hold and say, “You know what? I'm going to own this. I'm going to get out there and I'm going to show the world I can do this.” Not to mention they're walking in their underwear.

Jamie Depolo: Well, yes, that was going to be my next question! So they're learning how to model, learning how to strut, and they're doing it in their underwear, which adds a whole ‘nother — to me anyway — layer of fear and possible embarrassment. So is that ever an issue for anybody, or are they… once they're in they're in?

Dana Donofree: You know, once they're in, they're in! I tell them, I said, “If you don't want to walk in your bra and underwear, you shouldn't be in the show because it's kind of what we do here!” But the reality is, is that there's a vulnerability there, and there is this space where you say, “I'm actually putting my life and my body out there for people to see.” And I think that that's such a powerful, powerful thing.

So if we talk about fear less, not only is it just about the fears that we face because we're upon a diagnosis, or we have a diagnosis. But the fear of what it actually takes to get out there and do this, and be a beacon of hope for so many people around the world is really an incredible opportunity and incredible thing to see.

I mean, we had over 500 people that were nominated this year to walk in the show. I never expected a reaction like that. It really, really blew me away, and I feel so honored that people believe not just in AnaOno but in this movement enough to say, “I'm going to do that, too.” It’s huge. It's huge.

Jamie Depolo: That's amazing. And what has the reaction to the show been from, say, people within the fashion industry, not necessarily the breast cancer community, but the other communities that are watching this?

Dana Donofree: It's interesting because when Champagne came to me and she said, “I have a spot at New York Fashion Week, do you want to… let's do AnaOno.” My first thing to her was… as a fashion designer, as an industry professional, I said, “Champagne, what I do is not fashion.” I think it's pretty, but you know, New York Fashion Week is a sacred runway for me as an industry professional. And I said, “We're not there.” And she looked at me, and she goes, “Yes, you are, Dana, because you have a story to tell.” And I thought, you know what? I do have a story to tell. This is why this can be a runway of activism for all of us.

And the fashion community has been incredibly supportive. We've gotten amazing articles written about us throughout the years. The TODAY Show said that we were the first lingerie line bringing sexy back to breast cancer patients, and I'm like, “I'll take it!” I'll take it. We are changing the landscape here because we're still alive. We still want to love ourselves. We still want to feel sexy and beautiful and empowered, just like we did before cancer. Cancer doesn't get to take that away from us. That's one thing that we get to keep.

Jamie Depolo: Excellent. So, to kind of wrap up, you have been through a lot, you've seen a lot, you have friends that have been through a lot. Are there tips — maybe two, three, four — that you would offer to someone who has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer or has found out that he or she has, say, a gene that predisposes them to breast cancer or puts them at a very high risk and are facing those surgical choices?

Dana Donofree: I just encourage people to take it one day at a time. I mean, this world is overwhelming, not to mention when you layer a diagnosis on top of it. There's a lot of support and help out there that you can seek to help get through things. And do that. Don't try to do it alone. There's nothing proud in this moment. There is nothing that you feel like, “I can do this on my own, I don't need anybody.” Because you do, and if you don't have a supportive family, you don't have supportive friends, you are alone in your life — find your tribe.

Because we are a secret society of sorts that is always there for each other no matter what. And there's something about meeting another person with breast cancer — and other cancers, really — that when you can sit down and you can say to them that you have cancer, you know that you've felt the same thing at one point in time in your life.

And I know that when I meet another young woman with breast cancer, I don't have to tell her I'm afraid of dying. She already knows. She's already felt those feelings, or they've already felt those feelings. So there's already an instant connection to that person that words can't even describe.

So, I really just encourage people to find that space because it's… I did it alone and it's why my slogan for AnaOno is “Never alone.” Because when I did it by myself, it's because I couldn't find another young woman that was facing breast cancer. I could talk to plenty of 60-year-old women, but they didn't understand what I was up against. They didn't understand that I was trying to get married. I was maybe talking about or thinking about children, or I was at the peak of my career. None of that mattered to a 60-year-old woman who's got grandchildren. And that was really hard for me, and if I could've done it differently, I wish the internet existed more in 2010 in the way it exists today, but it's really important to heal that way.

Jamie Depolo: Excellent. Thank you so much, Dana. I really appreciate your time. Good luck with Fashion Week. I'll be very excited to see the write-ups and the photos. Thank you.

Dana Donofree: Thank you.

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