This blog is part of a series featuring interviews with patient advocates. This was adapted from an interview with Dana Donofree, designer and founder of AnaOno Intimates, made for women with breast cancer by women with breast cancer. She is also a passionate patient advocate active in the breast cancer community.
I started AnaOno after my bout with breast cancer at the age of 27. I received my diagnosis a day before my 28th birthday and two months before my wedding. I had been on top of the world, with a flourishing career in the fashion industry. After surgery, I had to throw away all the beautiful lingerie gifted to me at my bridal shower because it didn’t fit my reconstructed body. I ended up wearing sports bras under my professional wardrobe and I had to hide the neon green straps. I was searching for something that felt “normal” in a life that was no longer normal. I wanted to feel, dare I say it, sexy ….and I didn’t feel that at all with my missing hair, my missing eyebrows, and missing breasts. Where were the beautiful, comfortable intimates that would help me feel like ME again? I figured if no one else was doing anything to meet this need, I had what it would take!
The Physical Impact of Surgery
I never really knew what to expect following my mastectomy surgery. I didn’t have a lot of support when I was diagnosed. Since I was so young, it was difficult to connect with women who were at all close to my age; I felt like I was searching out all the answers myself. My newly reconstructed breast felt a bit foreign. Being in the best shape of my life was a blessing and a curse. Following surgery, I had a lot of issues with muscle and back pain because the implants had been inserted below the pectoral muscle (there are more options today than 10 years ago when I had surgery). I found that everything I put ON my body was also uncomfortable. All of my underwire bras were digging into me, causing additional shoulder and neck pain, and the cups had gaps and bubbles where my nipples used to be. I was buying sports bras two or even three times larger than my actual size, just to be able to put them on!
The Psychological Impact of Surgery
The part I found the most difficult was looking in the mirror for the first time. To be honest, I completely avoided it, for longer than what might be “healthy” – I didn’t want to see the mutilation, the scars, the bruises, or my missing nipples, so I decided to ignore my body altogether. My fiancé and I had postponed our wedding so I could get through treatment, and though he would encourage me and tell me how beautiful I was, I didn’t feel it. I didn’t believe it. On the day of my final reconstruction, I went to the tattoo parlor and made a decision for me. At that time, I wanted so desperately to wear a sexy demi bra, but couldn’t find one that fit, so instead, I got a tree of life tattoo in the same shape as a demi. It went around my torso, covering the mastectomy scars. I figured if I couldn’t find what I wanted, I’d make it up, and there it was, a beautiful mastectomy tattoo that had me feeling like me. I could now, finally, look back at myself in the mirror.
Adjusting to a new body after surgery isn’t always easy. That is OK. Nothing about cancer is easy. So be kind to yourself, and know that this is a process. You don’t heal overnight (mentally or physically), it takes time. Sometimes you feel good and sometimes you feel bad. You just have to learn from your emotions and listen to them. Our bodies are our constant reminder of what we went through; those scars are our battle wounds. Learn to love them, cherish them, and respect them.
Advice to Consider
We didn’t ask a doctor about bra advice before cancer, so why should we afterwards? Weird, right? But we do! It’s because they are often the only ones to turn to for advice, guidance, and the life hacks we need to recover after we make our breast surgery choices. Know that wearing your old bras may no longer work, and you may need multiple surgeries. I urge every patient to take it one day at a time. Get what you need for when you need it, and then heal, and move on to the next. It is important to stay as comfortable as you can during this time, and there are solutions out there to help you do that. It is also important to never forget who YOU are. Just because you’re a patient, doesn’t mean you have to look like one every day. At AnaOno, we know what it feels like, and we know what is necessary for recovery. That’s why I like to say, with AnaOno, you are Never Alone.
Dana will share more of her story at our “Navigating Sexual Health and Intimacy Surgery” panel on February 27 in Philadelphia, PA, at AnaOno headquarters. Dana will moderate a panel of experts including a Basser Center genetic counselor, family therapist, sexual health specialist, and a patient advocate. The panel will be followed by a shop and fit event.
Opinions of Basser blog contributors are their own personal opinions and do not necessarily represent those of the Basser Center.