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Going through Menopause Once is Already a Challenge; This is a Real Story About Someone Whose Gone through it TWICE!

By Celeste Lee, Co-Founder of Caire Beauty Interviews Dana Donofree

Here at Caire, we were grateful for the opportunity to spend time with Dana Donofree, Founder and CEO of AnaOno, a remarkable purpose-driven fashion brand rethinking bras & casual wear for real women living real lives. AnaOno creates gorgeous, designer-fitted bras for women post-breast cancer surgery and beyond. What makes the brand special is that they deliberately design for every body type outcome, they call it Boob-Inclusive, designed for breast surgeries such as mastectomies, reconstructions, cosmetic, and gender affirmation surgery. After Founder Dana had a shocking breast cancer diagnosis, she’s gone through the menopause journey, not once but TWICE already. Here’s what we learned in our conversation with Dana. 

Dana Donofree, Founder and CEO of AnaOno

Caire:  Tell us about how your menopausal journey began.

Dana:   I received a breast cancer diagnosis just one day before my 28th birthday – and just a few months before my wedding. (Stage 1, HER 2+).  I did not have a strong family history at all. Neither my mom nor my sister had ever had it. I found a lump accidentally in the shower and knew immediately it was something that hadn’t been there before. I didn’t even know that young women could get breast cancer, because it’s not shown in the media that way. So my first feeling was that it was weird that I had a lump and that I should get in touch with my doctor.

Caire:  What happened then?

Dana:  My cancer was aggressive, so I had a bilateral mastectomy, 6 rounds of chemotherapy and hormone treatment. I have gone through menopause twice. The first time was a ‘chemically induced menopause’. When you go through chemo, some women’s bodies react in this way, so for three and a half to four years or so, I had no menstrual period at all.

Dana's chemotherapy infusion for her breast cancer diagnosis

Caire:  What was your menopausal journey like in terms of manifestations, our caire word for ‘symptoms’?

Dana:   When my period stopped, I retained water, was bloated and what I understood to be hormonal weight gain and dryness everywhere. Both vaginal dryness and skin dryness. I experienced a lot of anxiety at night driven by the lack of estrogen and the hot flashes were abundant, I had one every hour, sometimes every 30 minutes.

Caire:  This all actually sounds so similar to regular natural age-related menopause. What is the difference between natural menopause and medical menopause?

Dana:  Both scientifically and medically, there’s a real lack of knowledge around what ‘medical menopause’. In my situation, I had what is called a ‘breakthrough’. My period came back which meant estrogen was being produced. Which was a problem for me medically, so I had to have treatments to medically induce suppression of estrogen production. All of the above problems got worse. Hot flashes, more weight gain. Vaginal atrophy. I put on 40 pounds.

Caire:  Are you still in estrogen suppression mode?

Dana:  My next 4 to 5 years was about suppressing it{estrogen} - that treatment ended in 2019. Then another ‘breakthrough’ occurred. So today, eleven years later, I’m holding on to my ovaries until I go through real life menopause. At 40, I am perimenopausal but it’s hard to know what this means because there is so little research across groups of women similar to me, even though some do exist, to understand commonalities and differences.

I have been off meds now for two years. Last winter was the first time I felt cold in ten years and I had to buy sweaters. My closet was very outdated!

Caire:  Was all this a surprise? Did they tell how to anticipate and manage your physical and emotional menopausal issues?

Dana:   You experience all these layers. Your body already thinks it’s in menopause because of the chemicals and there was definitely NOT a lot of support. It took me 8 years to find a gynecologist to help me with the pain. Sometimes, I could barely walk. I was in pain every day of my life. And the issue was that I simply could NOT have estrogen.

What I can know is that doctors are focused on fixing the cancer, not making your life better. Eventually, I found {Dr.} Dana Shanis in Philadelphia, she supports women going through reproductive or breast cancer or any cancer that causes these kinds of side effects. She was the one who gave me a path forward and helped me with pelvic floor therapy and other alternative therapies to deal with the pain and dryness. She also introduced me to low, very very low estrogen creams.

Caire:  We love that you have been so proactive in managing your cancer and menopauses. Can you share with us what happened with your skin?

Dana:   Cancer is a genetically human aging process. If we truly solved for cancer, we’d probably all be immortal. The good news is that in many cases we’re living longer because treatments have improved but the bad news is that side effects are worse. In terms of skin, my hands looked as if they had scales on them. It was like a bad sunburn but all the time, and in the winter, they would crack & bleed.

I was unable to stay hydrated. It didn’t matter how much water I drank or whether it was SmartWater or electrolytes water, I felt like I was dry everywhere. When I wasn’t doing chemo, they would bring me in on weekends, just to do IV bags – absorption wasn’t, couldn’t happen fast enough. My face was sooooo dry and I’d put on lotion, and it would go on and it seemed like I hadn’t done anything at all. Cocoa butter and coconut oil became my friends. I was slathering them on all the time. Then one of my doctors said not to use coconut oil as there is something ‘live’ in it and to use olive oil instead. During treatment, there were no options for extreme dryness. Dermatologists would give lotions that simply didn’t work. As a cancer patient, I became very attuned to what I was putting on my body. So, using organic deodorant, for example, was important to me. Using clean products in general. I was thinking about how ingredients can affect or induce cancer. I never use anything that is not cleanly formulated ever. I was also told not to get facials, but those I did them anyways because for me, they were relaxing and I felt I needed that feeling of care for my mental sanity.

By the way, there is some kind of skin ‘glow’ you get from chemo. Maybe because you shed all your cells. I have several friends with smooth skin.  

Caire: We so admire how you went from cancer to menopause to starting AnaOno, you're now a very successful intimates & loungewear brand. How did you go from the Big C to CEO?

Dana:  I was diagnosed in 2010. And by May 2011, I had started AnaOno. That first year, I was on a patient conveyor belt and was always thinking about the next surgery. In my mind, it was all about getting to the next phase and getting to normal. One day I woke up and realized, that this was my new normal.

Dana showing us a magenta colored bra design

I had been a fashion designer my whole life. I was at Hang Ten, later I designed for the sophisticated, sleek style of KaufmanFranco and after that, the creative, feminine fun of Anthropologie. Then all of a sudden I found myself going to lingerie boutiques without breasts. I already felt broken. I didn’t even feel female. And the options were these grandma bras. I couldn’t understand why I was being made to feel like I was living my life in a shadow. Cancer takes so much away from you – your eyelashes, your nipples. But it takes away more. Your sense of self. I didn’t feel loved by anyone, even myself. I needed to be able to love myself and feel confident about the most important person in my life, me. I wanted to feel beautiful and empowered and I knew that feeling empowered was an important part of my healing from cancer. Not being able to clothe myself, as a designer, was terrible.

Going through Menopause Once is Already a Challenge; This is a Real Story About Someone Whose Gone through it TWICE!

Caire:  Thank you, Dana for sharing your truth. But how on earth did you start AnaOno when you were in pain?

Dana:  I was lucky because I am a bit of a workaholic. I always wanted to have my own fashion line someday so it just seemed obvious that I should design the loungewear and lingerie that I wanted to wear. It all started by my wanting to wear a beautiful underwire free bra post cancer surgery. I have loved every moment of starting and leading AnaOno. I do believe that working was then – and is now - my escape from my life of cancer. In so many ways, my work was what kept me going. It has brought me moments of light, happiness and excitement. There are positives and negatives to living and working as a cancer survivor, but this has worked for me.

Caire:  Can you tell us more about your inspiration and purpose for AnaOno?

Dana   AnaOno has been a part of me and my story just as much as I have been a part of it. It has gone thru phases just as I have.

She became my muse and alter ego.

She has a lot of anger about the marketing of breast cancer.

She started as a brand for breast cancer but now she’s a brand for everyone.

My mission is to help women with breast cancer. As a 10-year cancer survivor, I’m opening new chapters and moving the needle. As a feminist, I am proud that AnaOno continues to grow legs in the intimate space. We now have tons of nude colors, a huge range of sizes. We are boob inclusive. I like being able to say, “How many breasts do you have?”

The reality is that 4 million women don't have real breasts anymore and traditional brands love talking and marketing inclusion but they exclude millions of women every day. I’m excited and honored to lead the charge for so many people. AnaOno is for people who are experiencing breast surgeries, gender confirmation surgeries or even for women getting shoulder surgery. She’s also great for women with two different size breasts.

Caire:  What has been the biggest success in sharing your breast cancer mission?  

Going through Menopause Once is Already a Challenge; This is a Real Story About Someone Whose Gone through it TWICE!

Dana:   In 2017, AnaOno was featured on the runway in a NYFW{New York Fashion Week} Show in support of metastatic breast cancer. It was really impactful. In fashion, breast cancer seems to always be about pink tutus and ribbons. Billboards show images of smiling women with grey hair who are strangely happy. Fashion as a business is suppressive. We don’t talk about the fact that we are amputating a body part to save someone’s life. You don’t mask an arm and a leg when it’s amputated. We wanted to show the world what this disease really looks like. The rules at the time were a problem. The CFDA {Council of Fashion Designers in America} said that the nipple defined nudity and there is no nudity allowed at Fashion Week. So, I said to them, don’t worry, there will be no nipples. There were no nipples because most women post surgery just don’t have nipples. One third of our runway models had metastatic disease. To accurately reflect real life breast cancer diagnoses. We went viral!

Going through Menopause Once is Already a Challenge; This is a Real Story About Someone Whose Gone through it TWICE!

Caire:  We had no idea you went viral. It’s so great that you brought such a real-life issue to the runway and beyond. What do you want our readers to know about metastatic disease?

Dana:  Patients are still dying at the same rates. 1 in 3 diagnosed with breast cancer will die eventually. That’s like crashing a jet plane every day. If planes were crashing like that, there would be change, regulations and fast. There is so much emphasis on early detection and research for treating early-stage breast cancers and that’s good but metastatic breast cancer is the cancer that kills.And yet it only receives between 3 and 5% of total breast cancer research funding. It’s frustrating that so many major organizations throw a lot of money away.

I want women to talk more about everything. About what it feels like to live in a body without breasts. About what dating looks like. Meaning how do you date without breasts? About sexual dysfunction. These are real life scenarios for millions. Women need to better support other women and part of that starts with talking. Like Caire, I believe individuals want to be part of a BOLDER community.

AnaOno Fashion Show

 

Caire:  Last but definitely not least, what would you tell someone who is 27 today with the same prognosis as you.

Dana:  I would tell them it’s not going to be easy, but it will give you an insight into a world you never knew. I learned why my grandma wanted a whisky before bed and would say things the way she did. I gained insight into why life is important and why time means something. I do nothing that does not bring me joy or happiness. If something does not conjure up those emotions, I cut them out. I have a limited time. Maybe my grandma learned this when she was 87, I learned it at 27.

AnaOno. Designed differently. Because we are. And different is beautiful. Learn more about Ana Ono here.


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