Founder Spotlight: Dana Donofree on Surviving Breast Cancer and Starting AnaOno

Founder Spotlight: Dana Donofree on Surviving Breast Cancer and Starting AnaOno

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21

As an experienced fashion designer, it didn’t take long for Dana Donofree to recognize the significant gap in the lingerie market when it came to serving—and representing—the diversity of people affected by breast cancer.
After her diagnosis, Dana embarked on a ten year journey of building and growing an inclusive line of bras designed specifically for people like her. 
A play on her own name, but without the double Ds, AnaOno has merged into a trailblazing resource for survivors looking to re-discover their power and beauty. 
Read on to learn how the brand has evolved over time, and why Dana stays committed to her mission of diversity and inclusion.

Can you tell us a bit about your cancer experience?

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 27. Soon afterward, I felt catapulted into a world made for a much, much older woman—a world more designed for someone like my grandmother. I was never accompanied by another young woman in the chemo or waiting rooms, and for many other reasons continued to feel isolated in the experience—as if I didn't belong.

What inspired you to start your company, AnaOno? 

After chemotherapy, I had a bilateral mastectomy with implant reconstruction, and I quickly discovered how difficult it was to find a bra to suit my new body. Doctors advised me not to wear underwire and that molded cups weren't going to fit me anymore. Ultimately, they recommended sticking to a sports bra or camisole—or better yet—nothing at all. Though I had no problem with the idea of going braless, I realized that it would be impractical for many occasions—like going to work, when I wanted to feel protected and feminine.
So, I leveraged my skill set as a fashion designer and started designing bras that would fit me and help me feel comfortable in the world again. I thought I was the only one facing this dilemma, given that nobody was selling or making these kinds of bras online. But soon enough, I realized that I wasn’t alone. Thousands of women felt the same way and were searching for something that would make them feel good and comfortable in their new body. And that’s how AnaOno began.

How did your identity as a cancer survivor help shape your business?

In a way, AnaOno has become my alter ego. In the very beginning, she was feminine, sexy, and beautiful. She was all the things I wasn't feeling inside because my eyelashes were gone, my eyebrows were gone, my hair was gone, my nipples were gone, and my breasts were gone. AnaOno helped me reclaim a part of my identity that felt harder to access at that point in my survivorship. 
As the brand has evolved, it’s continued to serve as a powerful outlet for me to discover new phases of my survivor journey.
Ten years later, I’m able to look back on the experience and see not only how AnaOno has shaped my identity, but how it has been shaped by my experience. There were times when I was an angry person, exhausted from seeing our friends and models die of breast cancer, and the brand in turn began to change and invest in stage four metastatic breast cancer research. 
Throughout so many of these organizational transitions, I recognized that I was also going through transitions as both a patient and an advocate.
At some point, as a cancer patient, you realize that the cancer is never over—it will always be a part of your life and your story. It’s something I wake up every morning thinking about, and I’m extremely fortunate to be able to channel that energy into helping other people find comfort and power in themselves again. 

You’ve helped to fill an important void in the fashion industry when it comes to embracing bodies of all shapes, needs, and abilities. Where did that decision come from?

When I first launched the line in May of 2014, an important part of my mission was to show the world what breast cancer really looked like. At that time, I couldn’t find any brands or retailers using survivors as models when selling their product. It was the biggest slap in the face to see brands marketing their bras to breast cancer patients and survivors while showcasing them on healthy, beautiful women with healthy, beautiful breasts. 
Even though these solutions were being marketed and sold to people like me, we weren’t actually being represented through their modeling and marketing. As a fashion design professional, this was enraging. As a cancer survivor, it was doubly enraging.
From that moment forward, I knew that I would use real people who had faced the same things I faced as the models for our product. We were even cited in a few fashion outlets for being one of the first brands to be truly representative of this market. 
Our commitment to this representation continues to compound itself year after year.

How did the industry react to this decision?

When we premiered at New York Fashion Week in 2017 with #CancerLand, our runway was regarded as groundbreaking: We showed the scars, the missing breasts, the missing nipples, all of it. And the question that the press asked most often was: “How did you find such a diverse runway?”
Truthfully, I was taken aback by this question. Cancer doesn't discriminate, so why would we? 
I've even been told by some writers that we’re still one of the few websites that represent women of color—that's also a MAJOR problem. 
There are enormous racial disparities within the breast cancer community when it comes to access to healthcare and access to treatment. And, of course, there are pervasive disparities in the fashion community, too. So there’s a lot that we’re fighting against. But being diverse is important. Being inclusive is important. And that’s never going to change. And hopefully, with time, more and more brands will start to feel the same.

As the industry continues to improve its inclusion of all bodies, where do you think it could do better to support people living with cancer? 

For better or for worse, “being inclusive” is now a hip thing to do. But many major lingerie lines are still missing the mark.
It's not just about representing a certain body type or skin color. There are also different abilities and body shapes to consider. We like to call ourselves “boob inclusive” because not every customer we have has two breasts—or even one. For us, being inclusive is being able to serve patients with every imaginable outcome, whether that be two breasts, one breast, no breasts, or new breasts.
At the end of the day, you can talk about two breasted females all day long in different sizes and different colors. But where is your representation of the nearly 40 million women—just in the United States—living with breast cancer? Where is their representation? 

What wisdom can you share about your experience for other patients and survivors?

Being a patient for 10 years, I know how exhausting, stressful, and overwhelming the experience can be. My advice would be to go easy on yourself, and to know that if all you can focus on is putting one foot in front of the other, that's enough.
When you have cancer, you're living your life in the world of the unknown—and that's not an easy thing to do. When the veil is finally lifted, you’ll see what life really looks like and you'll be ready to fill it with joy, love, and the things matter most after a diagnosis. 
It will take time to adapt and to find your new way. But once you do, it's a beautiful place to be.

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