Once Dana Donofree got over the breath-halting news that she had breast cancer, she went through a double mastectomy, six sessions of chemotherapy, and reconstructive surgery. Finally, she thought, it was time to return to the land of the familiar.
"I was so excited to wear a beautiful bra again," the South Philadelphia resident recalled.
Excitement turned to despair when she encountered an underwear drawer full of disappointment. "There wasn't a single piece that fit me," she said.
A reference from a doctor's office took her to a lingerie store that caters to mastectomy patients, but the fashion options were grim and Donofree left in tears.
"Ugly, beige, utilitarian, matronly bras," Donofree, 33, a fashion designer, recalled of the dozen she had tried on. "It was pretty devastating."
And then came an impetus to do something about it.
In 2014, Donofree launched AnaOno, a line of intimate apparel for women - particularly younger women - who have undergone breast reconstructive surgery and for whom recovery also means being able to feel sexy and whole again.
With about 2,000 bras sold so far at $48 to $54 each, most through AnaOno.com, the company is not yet profitable, and it faces a growing field of competitors. Most are offering one reconstruction-oriented bra style, not a line or a "lifestyle approach" as AnaOno promises.
With most sales so far by word of mouth, Donofree said her focus was on getting more product placement in specialty stores. Locally, her bras are only in the Faith and Hope Boutique at the Abramson Cancer Center.
Brand awareness could rocket early next year if the company wins a national contest for an expenses-paid, 30-second commercial to be aired during the Super Bowl on Feb. 7.
AnaOno is also one of 10 finalists in the Intuit QuickBooks' Small Business Big Game competition, a group whittled down by a panel of judges from 15,000 applicants.
The winner will be decided by the public, which can vote at smallbusinessbiggame.com. Two runners-up will receive $25,000 grants, with remaining finalists each receiving $10,000.
"This is a cause that's near and dear to my heart," said an exuberant Bill Rancic as he surprised Donofree with a visit to her home just off Washington Avenue and Sixth Street on Wednesday morning. The Chicago-based entrepreneur was the first winner of NBC's The Apprentice, and his wife, Giuliana, an entertainment journalist, is a breast-cancer survivor.
"You've got to mobilize the troops," Rancic, an Intuit partner and contest spokesman, told a beaming Donofree.
He called breast cancer survivors "a sorority like I've never seen," adding that Donofree has "opportunities out there she hasn't even scratched the surface on."
In just the age group the support community considers "young" from a diagnosis standpoint - 40 and under - there are about 250,000 survivors in the U.S., said Jenna Glazer, chief development officer at Young Survival Coalition, or YSC.
The New York-based support group, with a chapter in Philadelphia, was created in 1998 to spotlight the issues that are more relevant to younger breast cancer victims, including fertility, child-rearing, and dating. Donofree will participate for the first time in YSC's annual bike ride, Tour de Pink, from Frazer, Chester County, to Rehoboth, Del., from Oct. 9 to 11.
It is her personal understanding of the needs of women who have undergone mastectomies that makes Donofree's lingerie so "very special," said Glazer, 44, who underwent a double mastectomy after her diagnosis 11 years ago.
"She understands the psychology of women as well as the physicality," Glazer said.
All AnaOno bras - loungewear and swimwear are also planned - are named after the breast cancer survivors modeling them on the firm's website, and are made with features sensitive to postmastectomy breasts and chests, such as the absence of side seams, underwires, and apexes. Manufacturing is in Philadelphia.
An Ohio native and graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, Donofree held design jobs in New York and in Colorado, where her cancer was diagnosed, before moving to Philadelphia four years ago with her husband, Paul, a warehouse systems administrator at Subaru.
Needing the income for start-up capital, Donofree continued to work remotely for a children's wear company in Colorado while tinkering with designs for her AnaOno line.
AnaOno is self-funded, apart from a $10,000 Federal Express business grant Donofree recently won, which helped her pay for a marketing firm. A major sales boost followed an article about AnaOno featured in a Today show blog in April, which has Donofree planning to make her first hire.
The sales potential from a Super Bowl exposure "is huge," not to mention the platform for communicating her mission, she said.
"Breast cancer is still taboo. I want to change that," she said. "We're living our lives. We're living longer. I think that should be celebrated."
And what about AnaOno as her company name?
"A clever friend of mine said: 'It's Dana Donofree. It's like you lost your double D's,' " she recalled with a laugh. "I never had double D's, but it works."