Putting the Pieces Back Together: An Exclusive Interview with Founder/CEO of AnaOno Intimates & Breast Cancer Survivor Dana Donofree

Over the last few months, I’ve written several posts that both highlight and explore my own thoughts and feelings related to the breast cancer awareness movement. Well like I’ve said before, the purpose of this blog is not just to share my story, but to share all of our stories within the breast cancer community. This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dana Donofree, founder and CEO of AnaOno Intimates, and a breast cancer survivior herself. A few weeks ago, I heard about her company’s show at NY’s Fashion Week, and I was so inspired by her work I even wrote about it. Below you will find an exclusive interview with her, with almost the complete transcription (I’ve saved some out for another time, we just talked about so much!).

After you completed your treatment how was your overall self esteem? 

I think that’s a really great valid question, I think it was at an all-time low really. I was diagnosed young, at 27 years old, and I thought at that time in my life I was feeling pretty good about myself. I was planning for my wedding and had been in the best shape I had been in in a long time and I really putting a lot of focus to that. And then you get reset back to zero in a sense, you don’t have hair, you don’t have eyebrows, you don’t have eyelashes, and you’re kind of like “What am I now?'” You have to start over and find something that you yourself can associate and identify with because you have to start fresh.

Did you still feel like in some sense that you were a woman? When you looked at yourself in the mirror did you feel that your womanhood was stripped from you?

I think that they were very confusing times, because as a woman and what I identified with I didn’t need my long hair to feel like a woman. I had chopped it off several times in my life. I actually chopped it off the summer when I was in college, and I came back and everybody was like “Oh my god, you cut off your hair!” It was such a shock that I went Sharon Stone short, I thought it was the hottest hair cut in the world and I loved rocking that. There was so much — I had a sexy appeal I wore low-cut shirts and no bra because I felt like that made a sexy woman. And then I had to reset everything, because being bald and not having eyebrows and not having eyelashes and not having breasts you’re like, “What are we? What do you identify with?” Maybe having that experience even now, being 35, might be different, but at 27 I didn’t know yet, I didn’t know who I was. And I think that’s maybe the difference. I didn’t have children I wasn’t married, a lot of these things to identify as a woman were just so physical to me. I hadn’t earned the word ‘”woman” yet. I was just a young woman, very much so, I know that now *laughs.*

How did founding your company, AnaOno, contribute to rebuilding your self-esteem?

I think it was a huge part of me re-building my self-esteem because a major corner piece of why I started AnaOno was that I felt uncomfortable taking off my clothes with my partner. He still saw me as beautiful, he still thought I was sexy, but I didn’t. Everybody knows your sex appeal comes from the inside, not from necessarily what you look like, so for him it wasn’t a big deal, but for me it was. I felt so lost, and I couldn’t identify with my own self, and getting intimate with him was really difficult, and we were newlyweds. That’s not supposed to be the time when you’re having difficulty being intimate. And so I was like, if I don’t feel like taking off my clothes, and I don’t feel sexy enough without my top on, then I sure as hell better be wearing something sexy underneath my clothes! I could only wear a sports bra and I was like, this is not sexy, nothing about this is sexy, maybe if I had just gotten home from the gym and I was all sweaty, I get that! *Laughs*

It’s something that wasn’t being served to you, and I’m not sure if saying it was a systemic problem is the right thing to say, but when companies weren’t providing options to women in your circumstances, that’s horrible. 

It first started with my underwear drawer. I was wearing sports bras all the time, and then I had to find shirts that covered the sports bra straps. Then it was like one thing ended up leading to another. And then none of my button up shirts went over my new bust, so then I had to wear a cami underneath because I couldn’t button my shirts. It was like one thing led to another, and you’re like I don’t look physically that much different, why am I having all of these problems?

In your blog, you talk about how AnaOno has not only helped you, but that its also always had “the intent of servicing” other women diagnosed with breast cancer. What inspired you to create a company that operates with those values?

I felt like one and two were the same for me. I didn’t think that I was ever just going to make bras and not help women feel better about themselves, or there wasn’t going to be an alternative method to what I was doing. I learned very early on that even though I’m a designer, even though I solved a problem, even though I used clever themes and shapes and I created a beautiful product that fit, I realized very early on that I was not selling a bra, and that really what I was giving to these woman was a glimpse and a view back into a life that they somewhat felt like they had lost or maybe had a tough time finding again, which was their identity, which was their sexuality, which was them feeling like them, because you’re kind of so lost in the sauce that you’re getting treatment and you’re going in and out of these doctors appointments and you’re in and out of medical gowns and everybody is touching, poking, prodding you in every which way of the Tuesday. And then all of a sudden, you’re thrust back into the world, and they’re like “Go do you!” But you’re like “I don’t know who that is anymore I lost her!” And I knew what wearing a beautiful bra meant to me and how it kind of brought me back into my own skin and as I started hearing other women’s stories, sometimes it was a little TMI, talking about how they had the best intimate night with their partner since they were diagnosed, to women who were like “Oh my god you were the first bra I didn’t rip off after eight hours in the office!” Everybody was sharing with me these intimate insights into their lives and I started realizing this is more than just a bra, this is another vehicle another step towards who is supposed to be the new you, or who you’re going to be after you’ve gone through all of this horribleness.

It almost likes what’s the point of living if you have your sexuality and your identity stripped away from you. 

You’re absolutely right in saying that because I think that a lot of the beginning of what I was doing, when people were like “Oh but honey you’re alive” but I’m like “But what’s life if you’re not living?” I understand that I should be thankful that I’m here and I’m incredibly thankful that I was able to rebuild my breasts. It doesn’t mean I should feel horrible about myself or that I should question my identity or I should question my sexuality, like if this makes me feel good then by all means I should have access to it!

I’m curious to hear more about the title of your show, Exposed. In your blog post you talk about how the show puts a megaphone on breast cancer, breast surgery and IV disease. But, with breast cancer awareness being more prominent than ever, why do you think that spotlight is still important? 

Because we haven’t been talking about breast cancer in the right way. We’ve been talking about a lot of awareness and we’ve been talking about a lot of pink ribbons and breast cancer is not a disease that gets wrapped in a pretty pink box with a pretty pink bow, no diseases are. And I feel like what has happened is the real progression of the disease, the real side of what a woman goes through when she’s diagnosed with breast cancer and how it alters her body, is still swept under the rug because people would rather see us as pretty pink feather boas out at a march hugging and kissing and crying with each other. And I’m hugging and kissing and crying with all of those individuals that walked that runway and it’s because half of them won’t be here in a year. That’s why, that’s the reality of this disease, and so we have to talk about the disease in a different voice, in a different way, and I think to start getting attention towards what we need, which is a cure. We can’t keep making breast cancer pretty, and sure did I make it pretty in the show? Yeah I make lingerie for patients and survivors that have breast cancer. But the story was bigger than my brand, the story was bigger than #Cancerland, the story was each of these individuals taking this runway, they are celebrating their lives, they are living, and they will not brush themselves underneath the carpet.

From what I understand, all the women that participated in your show were either former or current breast cancer survivors. What encouraged them to put themselves in that kind of public spotlight? 

I have to say, I’m completely humbled and feel incredibly loved that each of them took the runway and made it their own. Paige is a previvor, that means she’s genetically dispositioned, she got the BRAC test back and she was positive [for mutations]. She’s 24 years old, she decided to get her mastectomy, but she sees breast cancer just like the rest of them have. One of the individuals is now freed after the mastectomy because Vonn realized that she wasn’t all woman, she was missing something in her life, and that is what really gave her the insight and the identity to transition and become non-binary because the breasts were what was holding Vonn back from the mental steps that they needed to take. And some of those things, I don’t want to say were a blessing in any way, but they were disguised as an alternative life path and that identity surge came from one of the most extreme operations that there is. And Vaughn is working really hard to bring a spotlight to the trans community and that direction as well. There were some women that were Stage IV that are still actively in treatment and the cancer is eating away at the entire inside of their body and you cannot tell, to have the courage and the strength to get out there and show that message was just incredibly humbling for me and I just felt so honored. Both Champagne Joy, who is the founder of #Cancerland that I did the show with, and I just felt nothing but love.

After watching my mom go through treatment, and this is in no ill-will of her, she pent up a lot of what she was feeling, and I don’t think my mom would’ve had the courage to go out in public like these models had. Did any of them struggle with wanting to do the show? 

I can’t speak for everybody, but I felt reserve behind the curtain, but once they hit that runway I saw a different person. I didn’t get to see the show live because I was also behind the curtain but watching back at the video and hearing the roars of the crowd, they were making that happen. I have to say in regards to your mother, that’s exactly why this show was so important as well, because I meet loads and loads of people that haven’t told their kids, only their husband and their best friend knows, or I get emails from women that tell me that they had breast cancer twenty years ago and nobody knows. That means that there’s still shame, there’s still stigma. You mention that about your mother but I have to say that’s probably the majority of the camp really. It’s a hard thing to celebrate afterwards, and I think again it goes back to the pink feather boa, that’s not for everybody. Because you celebrate your life but there’s a lot of bad around you, you can only get a few celebrations for yourself because, especially being a young woman, I’ve lost more friends then I can count at this point in time, and that doesn’t call for celebration, a cure will call for celebration, But for now we’re still dying from this disease and very rapidly, that’s not slowing, so if we put these billions of dollars that are raised every year to support a pink ribbon and not to support the women who are dying from this disease then it doesn’t make any sense.

In the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc., the founder of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Nancy Brinker, makes the point of saying that part of the whole appeal of the pink ribbon movement isn’t to pretty the disease but rather to create hope, because without hope, people aren’t going to want to push forward at all. How do you feel about that — creating a sense of hope for women who don’t feel that way? 

Well where’s the hope when there isn’t hope? It’s a false sense of hope because we can encourage and we can support one another but if we’re dying at the same rate we’ve been dying for the last twenty and thirty years, there is no hope. Your ratio is still the same. I had a 1 in 3 chance of making it to five years. I was the lucky one. Dozens of my friends were not, so where’s the hope? I feel like I get so confused by that, because I was diagnosed in 2010, so seven years ago, I had a glimpse of hope when I hit my five year mark and guess what? It only took me far enough until the next morning where I had to set another milestone to make it another five years because there isn’t a cure. This breast cancer journey is not over for any of us, we are under constant monitoring, we are on constant doctor care, we don’t get a clean bill of health, we get sent home, we get a “we’ll wait until we see you next time.” So who’s the hope for? The loved ones, the supporters? Maybe, maybe that’s important too. I think it is. But for the women that are facing the disease, the hope is minimal.

I always grapple with the idea that the pink ribbon is so pervasive that we’ll probably never be able to, for a lack of a better phrase get rid of it, it’s so ubiquitous with the movement. Do you have any suggestions for how to work around it, or do you the pink ribbon no longer serves any purpose?

Here’s the thing, I think the pink ribbon does serve a purpose. And it’s purpose actually served well for me. I caught my breast cancer at 27 years old at a very early stage because I was aware. Now, did that awareness really educate me and drive me to do a monthly breast exam? No. I was under the notion with my fiancé if you feel something say something, I just thought that was the rule. I washed my armpits I washed my body, if something were to pop up I would obviously feel it! But it did make me think, oh, maybe I should go to the doctor, maybe this isn’t normal. And hopefully, I would like to believe, that the nurse practitioner that sent me to the next test, it’s also worked for her, because knowing that even though I was a totally rare case, that if it was something it would be dangerous, if it was nothing then we’d just have a test that tells us it’s nothing. But at least she was aware that young women get breast cancer, not a lot, but that they do. So I think the level of awareness in that sense is doing the purpose it’s supposed to do. I think where we lose the awareness is with too much money going to this “awareness campaign” when it could be going to research dollars, and too many people are using it for a branding and marketing strategy. I don’t paint anything pink, I don’t use women affected by breast cancer in my campaigns for my website because it’s a marketing strategy, I use them because these are the bodies that I am trying to dress whose lives have been affected by breast cancer. Why would I hire a model to shoot my lingerie on? Several of the women on my website campaign have passed away and some of these women still have their ports in their bodies and their burns from their radiation therapy and their tattoos from the laser of radiation to very visual scars that can’t be hidden from the lines of a bra. The woman sitting on the other side of the screen needs to see somebody that she’ll relate to because she might be that woman that’s never told anybody. And with that there’s a little bit of hope because she doesn’t feel alone, and that’s very important of what I want to put forth as a brand and as a company. But I think that we just need a shifting of the scales, the awareness can’t go away because there will be new people that are born and been raised and need to know this is a deadly disease, but we’ve prettied it too fast, we’ve made the disease pretty too fast, so now people forget that women and men die of breast cancer.

You specialize in the fashion business and obviously you see a value in women having access to intimate wear that best suits their bodies and their needs during and after treatment. But in your blog post you also mention that “Breasts don’t define beauty. Breasts do not define feminity.” What do you mean by that? 

My dear friend Champagne Joy, that I did the show with, said it very beautifully actually, she said to me, she goes, “defining you as a woman is the piece they can’t cut away.” And I thought that was really powerful because what defines us as women is our hearts and our souls, and we have a lot of physicalities that we attach to our womanhood but they don’t make us women. I think our hearts make us women and the way we care and the way we nurture and the way we treat one another, it’s very different than our male counterparts! *Laughs* I think that really rang true to me because I felt when I made the decision to have my reconstruction that it was because it would help me feel whole, I would fit into my clothes, I would still have breasts, people wouldn’t look at me “funny” like “oh what happened to her?” And I realized now that none of that matters. I could have my breasts or not have my breasts because really they’re not a piece of me anymore they’re just like an object on my body and I have no association to them, and that’s taken me a really long time to come to that place. It’s been seven years, so I can just now start to say I’m comfortable really with who I am.

In that post you also mention your friend Champagne and when she told you “We lived to have our voices heard.” Can you tell me a little more about that quote and what it means to you? 

I think that we won’t fix or change anything if we sit quietly. If we need to turn up the volume and we need to yell a little louder then that’s why we’re still here to do that. I have friends that have no voices anymore, and if I can help be their voice because I’m still here, my feet are still on the ground, then that is our purpose because with that we’ll make change but if we sit and we just let the stigma be there and let the shame be there and not point out what so many people are going through, then what’s living?

Is there anything you can tell me about what’s coming up with your company post-NY Fashion Week?

NY Fashion Week I think was a huge step forward for our community, I’m just a small business trying to make a big difference. I hope I get the opportunity to continue that mission forward because […] with stories like this, and with bloggers and with the support of the community, we can all keep making a difference togethe. And that’s what keeps me going everyday is to be able to do with this little piece of each of our lives after cancer has kind of destroyed it, and putting those pieces back together, or as best as you can.

The transcription has been edited slightly for length and grammatical clarity. 

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