The FemmePharma series, Women We Admire, highlights women who inspire us with extraordinary life lessons. In this edition, we chat with Dana Donofree, founder of lingerie brand AnaOno. Donofree was diagnosed with breast cancer at 27. After a bilateral mastectomy with implant reconstruction, her bras no longer fit. In fact, nothing in the traditional lingerie market fit her surgically altered body any more. With a degree in fashion design from Savannah College of Art and Design and a successful fashion industry career, she took her 10-plus years of experience and put it toward designing, launching, and growing AnaOno.
Donofree is active in the breast cancer community and involved with several nonprofits, including Living Beyond Breast Cancer, and she is a Metavivor advocate. Her story has been featured in USA Today, The Today Show, HuffPost, The New York Times, Style, and many other publications. However, she is most proud of being able to make a difference in the lives of women worldwide and is honored to continue to spread her mission of beauty, confidence, and empowerment.
Describe your life before breast cancer.
I was living my dream! I was successfully climbing the ranks in the fashion industry and had just moved from New York City to Colorado with my fiancé. I was on a pre-honeymoon shopping spree with my mom and mother-in-law-to-be when the doctor called and told me, “You have cancer.” It was devastating.
Did you always want to be a fashion designer?
Yes! Always! I started making my own clothes at a very young age. My mother always said I had my own sense of style. So, it was either fashion designer or professional dancer.
What sort of attire did you imagine you’d design?
Always women’s fashion. I wanted to be the next Yves Saint Laurent, designing sexy suits for sexy women. It was everything! I worked in high fashion and, at one point, children’s accessories. I couldn’t have imagined I’d be designing post-mastectomy bras, that’s for sure.
Describe your personal style.
Bold, modern, clean — and at times a bit funky!
What led to the move from Colorado to Philadelphia?
My fiancé (now husband) was transferred, and I was excited to be closer to NYC again, because that was where my industry roots were. I knew I was going to launch AnaOno, so I was thrilled to get back East.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
[Laughs] That’s a fun question. Did you say free time? When I do get an opportunity to spend a little me time, I love walking around Philadelphia with my hubby and my pup, and stopping to enjoy a great meal at one of the fantastic restaurants in our city. Wining and dining are my thing.
What were your initial thoughts after being diagnosed?
I’m a young woman with zero reason to worry about breast cancer. Can this really be happening?
How did your loved ones react to the news?
They were as shocked as I was. Everyone was scared for me and for my life. Same as I was.
What inspired you to start your business?
After my final reconstructive surgery, I woke up in the middle of the night and realized that dressing myself every day had become depressing. I couldn’t find a bra that fit my surgically altered body. It affected all of my wardrobe choices. That was my motivation to take my years of fashion design experience and start designing bras that would work for my new body.
How does your personal style influence your designs?
I never want beauty and comfort to be a compromise. So I consider that in everything I design.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to face so far?
There have been many. Getting started was hard. You’d be surprised how many people asked me “Why do you even need a bra?”
Describe a customer interaction that has made a lasting impact.
We are lucky to meet many customers, and to share intimate experiences together. We hear so much about how their lives have been disrupted by a cancer diagnosis. But one example comes from the New York Fashion Week show we had in February, where we filled the runway with 24 metastatic breast cancer patients. We always use models who are living with breast cancer, and each one of them brings a unique story to the runway.
Unfortunately, due to metastatic disease, we have lost several of our models already this year. This is such an important topic to talk about, because there is no cure for breast cancer. Having each of these incredible women in our lives is absolutely priceless. We see everything they go through and share with the community. Seeing how brave and confident the women are is an inspiration and keeps me going.
What impact has AnaOno had on how the fashion industry approaches lingerie design?
Before AnaOno, 99 percent of the mastectomy bras out there looked like corrective medical devices. We have shown that post-mastectomy bras can be fun, flirty, and even sexy. We want everyone to be able to celebrate their lives and their bodies!
What is the biggest thing you’d like to see changed in your industry, and how are you working toward making that change happen?
There are so many things to worry about when you receive a cancer diagnosis. It can feel like you are just a lab rat, getting poked and prodded everywhere you turn. It can be pretty hard to keep your dignity intact. Feeling uncomfortable and depressed in a hospital-issued post-surgery bra should not be on the list of worries! We are working to let everyone know, from patients to caregivers to medical professionals, that there are other options.
What can people do to support patients and survivors and increase awareness?
Simply being there and listening to your friends who are patients and survivors is a huge help. Sometimes people don’t know what to say. You don’t have to say anything. Be there. Walk your friend’s dog, do her laundry, offer to wash her hair at home.
Thanks to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, awareness of the disease is high. What a lot of people don’t realize is that not all the money raised in these October campaigns goes to research. We are still losing more than 40,000 women a year, along with 500 men. Awareness is important, it will save lives, but we also have to make progress in terms of therapies and treatments. Make sure to research where your money goes and that it funds activities that will improve the lives of those you love.
What advice do you have for others diagnosed with breast cancer?
Ask questions, know your options, be kind to yourself. You can only take one day at a time, and that is OK.
What advice would you give to another entrepreneur just starting out?
Strap in and be ready for the ride of your life. It isn’t easy, but it can be absolutely gratifying!