Cancer Took My Breasts, but It Didn’t Get to Take My Right to Feel Good in a Bra

Photo: Anaono

Fashion designer Dana Donofree found a lump in her breast the day before her 28th birthday. She was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma —making her one of the 12,150 women under 40 who are diagnosed with breast cancer each year—and underwent a bilateral mastectomy, six rounds of chemo, and a year of drug treatment. After reconstructive surgery, she was shocked that she couldn’t find a single bra that made her feel comfortable and confident. So she decided to create one for herself, and her company AnaOno was born. 

“Try a sports bra.”

That was the advice my doctor had when I told him none of my bras fit after my mastectomy. I was 28 years old, and fighting aggressive breast cancer. My other option, according to him? “Wear nothing at all.”

It felt weird to ask a doctor for advice on how to buy a bra, since that’s not something I ever would have done before cancer, but none of my old bras (or old clothes) fit me the right way. Since I no longer had natural breast tissue that was soft and pliable—instead I had implants that did not move—tops didn't fit right and bras didn’t fit my new shape at all. Plus, there are certain things you need from a bra after a mastectomy. You want to have something soft, especially immediately after your surgery—underwire is completely out. You can’t have molded cups, either, because you want something flexible that will lay flat against your chest where your breast used to be, and won’t wrinkle or bubble. If you’re going flat, you may want something like a chemise with pockets so that you can pop breast forms in and out to help fill out your tops or create symmetry.

Nothing like that existed (at least as far as I could tell). So I took my doctor's advice and went out and bought every color of sports bra I could find. Yes, they were comfortable, but having to wear a sports bra everywhere started to dictate many aspects of my life in unexpected ways. I had to buy all new work shirts, because you can’t exactly wear a neon pink sports bra under your run-of-the-mill white blouse, which made me feel unprofessional and unprepared. More than that, though, I didn’t feel sexy. It’s really hard to go home to someone and be intimate and loving when you already are struggling with how your body looks after cancer surgery, but then to have to have a sports bra on when you take off your clothes? Come on. It wasn't right for me.

If you felt sexy before cancer, you should feel sexy after cancer. You should never feel “less than” just because your breasts have been removed.

At one point, I went a lingerie store specifically for cancer patients, and sat in the dressing room in tears because the only options were these grandma-looking mastectomy bras. The fashion designer in me thought, This can’t be it. So I set out to create a solution of my own. I asked myself two questions: what fit me the best (which was the sports bra), and what made me feel sexy (which was lace). I used the shape of a sports bra but redesigned it with lace and fun, quirky details to be more attractive. That first bra was really the start of AnaOno.

I knew from my own experience that there weren’t bra options out there for women with mastectomies and breast reconstruction. What shocked me, though, was how many other women out there were unhappy with what was being offered to them. Surgery results are vast—some women have one breast removed, some women have both removed, some women do reconstruction while others don’t, and every result is different—which means there are a vast number of different shapes and needs when it comes to bras. I once received a note from a woman who is flat chested after having both breasts removed, and she asked for “a sexy black bra that her husband could unhook.” At the time, it didn’t exist, which I saw as a problem I needed to solve. And I did.

Bras mean so much more to us than just something that hold up our breasts. Think about how exciting it was when you bought your first bra, or every time since then that you’ve put on a beautiful piece of lingerie. Bras can make us feel sexy and empowered at so many different points in our lives. But when that gets taken away from you, it’s another thing that cancer took, and you didn’t expect it. Sure, you expected that cancer would take your hair and your eyebrows and your eyelashes and even your breasts. But the ability to feel good about yourself in a bra? You should still be able to have that. If you felt sexy before cancer, you should feel sexy after cancer. You should never feel “less than” just because your breasts have been removed.

As told to Zoe Weiner.

Athleta is doing its part to make women with breast cancer feel good in their bodies, too—read about their new "Empower Bra" here. And here, a woman who underwent a preventative double mastectomy shares her story.

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