This month we are honoring and celebrating the women in the AnaOno community who've been diagnosed with breast cancer. Never one to encourage others to do something I wouldn't do myself, I thought I would start off the month with my own story, which includes the story of how AnaOno began.
Welcome to November; the bridge between the colors and crispness of fall and the holiday season with the chill of winter. This month we are honoring and celebrating the women in the AnaOno community who've been diagnosed with breast cancer. Some of the posts we share will be in their own voice, others will be a collaborative essay of their experiences. You can follow along here on our blog, or on Facebook and Twitter @AnaOnoIntimates. If you want to contribute to the conversation, we encourage you to use #mysurvivorstory.
Never one to encourage others to do something I wouldn't do myself, I thought I would start off the month with my own story, which includes the story of how AnaOno began. The post was originally a three-part segment I was asked to contribute on the Living Beyond Breast Cancer blog about a year ago. I thought it was a fitting segue from the October madness of promoting our top 10 spot in the Intuit Small Business Big Game contest to November's embrace of Sisterhood, Community and Family.
I so look forward to reading and sharing your stories throughout this month. We've had such a wonderful response for contributions. If you aren't included this time, don't fret - we will be spotlighting survivors over the next several months as well. So many great things are in store, and I am delighted to have you along for the ride!
In the weeks leading up to my 28th birthday, cancer was the absolute last thing on my mind. I was, after all, putting together the last-minute preparations for my wedding and planning a trip back home to Ohio for my bridal shower. My career in fashion was taking off, and I was starting to realize how happy and lucky I was. Plus, I was young, taking care of myself and doing all the "right," healthy things I would read about.
Oddly after several conversations with my best friend and sister about finding lumps in their breasts, that turned out to be benign, I guess you could say I must have had a heightened awareness to checking my breasts. It dawned on me that I too should do a self exam, but I didnt, I had just been to my annual check up and if there was something there the doctor would finid it, right? Well, it wasn’t until one day in the shower, when my wrist brushed against my armpit…yes, my armpit, that I even noticed a lump. After the initial shock of finding it, I sort of shrugged it off. My friend’s turned out to be nothing. I was going to be fine, too.
Only I wasn’t. The day before my birthday, surrounded by family, friends and bridesmaids I got the news. Infiltrative ductal carcinoma. Triple positive. I was staring down multiple surgeries, chemo (!) and all of the what-ifs that come along with the cancer. Everything in my life changed that day.
Obviously, my first move was to get ready for the grueling treatment and make sure I was in the best shape as possible. I was after all training for my wedding day and eating healthy and working out. I continued working my design job and tried not let cancer run my life. The May wedding got postponed, but my fiancé Paul, remained by my side throughout the whole ordeal. I got a bilateral mastectomy, spacers, reconstruction (though I opted out of nipple reconstruction). I played through the pain, I weathered the darkest moments the best I could, and I got myself involved with young survivor support groups.
Those groups were vital to my well-being. They helped me realize I wasn't the only 20-something losing my breasts to this awful disease. They made me laugh, held my hand through the down days when I was feeling anything but beautiful and they helped me understand all of my emotions and the chemo side effects. It became such a part of my existence, I made it a point, once I recovered, to stop any woman I spotted sporting a headscarf, hear her story and pass along words of encouragement. They are also the reason why I am so supportive of organizations like Living Beyond Breast Cancer. LBBC provides a beacon of light in the cancer darkness, guiding women to resources and support networks to assist them in finding the right match to help with their treatments and recovery.
The positive to my diagnosis, if ever there could be one, was that I was HER2+. This made me a candidate for Herceptin. Before 2006, Herceptin was only used in late-stage cancers, but by the time of my diagnosis, it was approved to treat HER2+, and it had a very favorable success rate in battling the disease.
I kept thinking about the women before me with the same diagnosis prior to 2006. There were many who died waiting for the approval. There were many who died because they weren’t the right candidate. And now, there were many like me benefitting from the research and dollars drummed up by pink ribbons, walks and the memories of those women who were lost. I was grateful beyond words. Who is to say one way or another, but I believe the access to Herceptin saved my life.
There is a wave of fear, anxiety and doubt that follows the flood of joy when your cancer doctor releases you from care with clear scans and positive words. It is almost even more overwhelming than the fear that greets us survivors upon diagnosis. Because now life is forever altered. Now there is nothing but a new set of what-ifs with no real solutions to challenge them. Now I had to go back to life without cancer, but a life very different than the one BEFORE cancer. People like to call it the “new normal.” And I woke every day to a different battle ahead of me; one that was about restoring myself to some semblance of the Dana I was before the disease.
The doctors tell you what to expect with fatigue, Tamoxifen therapy, depression, anxiety, loss of femininity, loss of self and several pages of other symptoms and side effects. But what was most astonishing is that not one person prepared me for what clothes shopping was like with my new cancer-free body and gravity-defying breasts.
NOTHING fit right anymore. Not my cute tank tops. Not my sundresses. Not my flirty tees. And certainly not my bras; my wonderful, colorful, lacy, pretty VAST collection of bras and lingerie. Every trip to the boutique or mall was one that ended in exasperation and defeat. My doctor shrugged and said I could wear a sports bra. A sports bra? Those were reserved for my runs or bike rides. Not at work under a button-down and certainly not on a date.
Then the AH-HA moment happened. Out came my books, my pattern board, fabric swatches, mood boards. If there wasn’t a bra out there that fit me, I was going to make one. I made phone calls to manufacturers. I spent hours pouring over lace trims. I started designing for myself. I started thinking about this as a viable business. If I was having trouble with fit, surely someone else was, too. I drew up a plan, created a small line of lingerie, and AnaOno Intimates was born.
Cancer had officially taken my life on another path. Only this time, it was one I had always wanted: designing my own line and having my own business. The concept for AnaOno Intimates came organically from within. After cancer and reconstructions, I’d walked into lingerie stores countless times, enthusiastic at first, but then leaving with nothing but self-loathing and tears because my body was forever altered. It was like I was back in my cancer treatment days, easily identifiable by my head scarf or lack of eyebrows and eyelashes. This time I was walking around with a giant, heavy stamp on my chest: NOT NORMAL. The sheer frustration became absolutely maddening, but the pain of being “different” or “changed” or in some dark moments, “ruined” was unbearable. I made my mind up, I knew in that moment I never wanted another woman to EVER have to go through what I did; they should feel just as beautiful, confident and sexy as they did the days before reconstructive surgery. Cancer should not and WILL NOT take that away.
If passion were currency, my line would’ve launched overnight. But, in reality, businesses cost money, and my day job was funding my dream job, so AnaOno developed slowly in my spare time. Every moment I wished to run headlong and launch already, I got snapped back to a slower pace.
Once again, a lesson I learned from having cancer was playing out in the real world. You just want it to be over, to be at the finish line, to go back to life before doctor’s visits and anti-nausea pills. You don’t want the baby steps of regaining strength and health, you just want to be better already!
I knew I innately had the patience and the will and the fight to accomplish my goals. After all, the cancer ordeal taught me I was a lot stronger and more determined than I had known previously. So, I took a deep breath (once again), and methodically did my research, took my steps, drew up lists and crossed off every hurdle, this time climbing the small business mountain.
It took me nearly a year, but with the help of friends and family I was able to proudly present AnaOno Intimates to the public in May of 2014. In that year I had not only designed a line, oversaw its manufacture and produced and directed a video featuring AnaOno and loosely telling my own story of beauty both lost and found (see the clip here at http://on.fb.me/1whH4K1). I also met so many wonderful young survivors who are still great friends and a constant inspiration. My relationships with them and the women I meet daily remind me why I keep working so hard to create my brand and product.
In July, 2014, I got connected with LBBC. So thankful to form a partnership with the organization that had been so helpful through my treatment and post-cancer life. I am so proud to say 5% of AnaOno’s sales of our most popular bra, the Rachel, goes to fund the programs and resources LBBC provides. We are also giving back to the Young Survival Coalition and Jill's Wish; donating proceeds of sales of our other bras to them.
Giving back and creating sisterhood is tantamount to AnaOno’s mission, so this opportunity gives me extraordinary gratitude. My experience with breast cancer has finally taken me full circle, from an everyday 20-something woman, to a cancer patient, to a survivor, to a business owner, to a woman who can make a difference in the lives of others.
And for that, I have to say, “Cancer, without you, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today.”
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You are not going to look like you used to, and that is OK. With a little ingenuity, anything is possible.