NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Friday, September 25, 2015, 3:36 PM
This breast cancer survivor transformed her scars into a celebration of her life.
Philadelphia resident Dana Donofree underwent a bilateral mastectomy five years ago after she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer just before her 28th birthday – and the weekend of her bridal shower. She postponed the wedding and endured a grueling year of chemotherapy and several surgeries to remove her breasts and reconstruct new ones.
“I really had a hard time finding myself again after cancer,” says Donofree, now 33. “I was like a burned-up Barbie doll. My hair was gone, my eyebrows were gone, my eyelashes were gone … and these fake boobs had taken the place of my natural breasts.”
So she decided to take her body back.
While women usually opt for nipple tattoos or nipple reconstruction post-mastectomy, Donofree chose to illustrate her cancer journey by inking a flowering tree of life that wraps from her back, around her ribs and up through her breasts, mimicking a demi bra made of cherry blossoms. The elaborate tat took six months to complete in three sessions that took six hours apiece.
“I was looking at myself in the mirror when the piece was all done, and I wasn’t seeing the mastectomy scars anymore,” she marvels. “I was seeing this beautiful tree, and a piece of art that inspired me and made me feel good about myself.”
I wasn’t seeing the mastectomy scars anymore. I was seeing this beautiful tree, and a piece of art that inspired me, and made me feel good about myself.
So she didn’t stop there.
Next Donofree decided to conceal her chemo port scar under her arm, where a tube had been inserted and connected to a vein to deliver cancer drugs and fluids.
“Chemo was the thing that almost took me out … and the port scar was one of the toughest things for me to look at every day, because it was such a horrible part of my treatment,” she says.
So she inked a beautiful pair of birds – her “wings of life” – on either side of the scar, which represent Donofree and her husband, and how they’ve overcome this ordeal together. She got a third tattoo of a lotus flower directly over the port scar, symbolizing rebirth.
“Cancer does a funny thing to you,” she says. “You get a glimpse of the end of your life, and it gives you a free pass to do the things you’ve always wanted to do with a no-holds-barred approach.”
Donofree covered her mastecomy scars with a cherry tree tattoo, and added an arm sleeve of two birds representing her and her husband.
Donofree also covered her chemo port scar beneath her arm with a lotus blossom, which symbolizes rebirth.
Now when she looks in the mirror, she sees “this beautiful tree, and a piece of art that inspired me and made me feel good about myself.”
That has included helping other breast cancer survivors to feel comfortable in their new bodies – and creating her own bra line tailored to women who have had mastectomies.
“Breast reconstruction after breast cancer is not the same as a boob job,” she says. “It’s not just a small implant or augmentation – you have no natural tissue left in your breasts, so it doesn’t naturally mold or conform to the shape of traditional bras.”
There would be awkward gaps in foam-molded bra cups, and the underwires often painfully pushed against the implants. Her doctor suggested she go braless or stick to sports bras or camisoles. She even went to a mastectomy bra store, which mostly sold “pocket bras” which hold the reconstructed breasts in place with breast forms, but she was discouraged by the utilitarian cuts that were still uncomfortable, as well as the unflattering beige colors.
“I left in tears, totally crushed, not knowing how to feel about myself,” she says. Part of the reason she loves her cherry blossom tree breast tattoo so much is that it closely resembles a beautiful bra.
So Donofree, who once worked as a fashion designer for New York label KaufmanFranco, created the AnaOno Intimates line (a play on her name) that just launched this past summer, which includes lace bralettes, front-closure wire-free bras and bamboo sports bras in sexy shades of pink, black, ivory and nude for $ 32 to $ 58.
She drew from her own trial and error fitting experiences to craft bras without uncomfortable underwires, and without side seams that can irritate surgery scars. They are made from stretchy fabrics like nylon/spandex lace that fit the shape of reconstructed breasts, since the apex point in many bras won’t fit women without nipples.
“I think people haven’t really designed these yet because it’s just now that the conversation is changing, and women are talking about what they want after surgery,” says Donofree, who is already testing prototypes for sexier versions of post-mastectomy pocket bras and swimwear to roll out for Spring 2016.
“Somebody who hasn’t been exposed to a sister or a friend or a mother who has gone through this has no idea what happens to your body,” she adds. “It’s been a struggle to educate and explain why our bodies are so different, and why this niche brand of mine is so different.”
Her uplifting message is catching on. Iconic fashion designer Stella McCartney just revealed her own post-mastectomy bra for October Breast Cancer Awareness Month that honors her mother Linda, who died three years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998.
“It might feel like such a trivial thing to complain about. You just beat cancer. You’re alive. Who cares if you can’t wear a bra?” says Donofree. “But I do care. There’s a lot of women that care, women who want to feel feminine and sexy and beautiful after cancer, and if a sexy piece of lingerie makes you feel that way, then why shouldn’t you have it?”