Colleen Kanna wants to make life a little bit easier for women going through cancer treatment.
The clothing company she started, coKANna, makes clothes designed around the side-effects of radiation and chemotherapy on the body.
Kanna, who lives in Ottawa, is herself a cancer survivor, after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. She said the idea for coKANna came after struggling to find comfortable clothing while she was going through treatment.
“It’s hard because you go to so many appointments and so many treatments where you have to undress and dress again,” she said. “Always having to pull things over my head was hard.”
She wore button up shirts, but those often weren’t soft enough. While regular T-shirts were soft, they were hard to put on.
The clothing Kanna created is made with the specific challenges of going through cancer treatment and the side-effects in mind. She said the clothes are made of bamboo fibre, which is soft enough for tender skin during radiation therapy. It’s also designed to be put on without lifting it over your head, something Kanna said can be difficult after surgery.
“I wanted something that was nice looking, easy to get on and off, and was soft and still made me feel good about myself even though I was sick and going through cancer.”
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, around 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lives, which makes it the third most common type of cancer in the country. The CCS’s 2017 report, the most recent one available, estimates there were 26,300 new cases of breast cancer in Canada last year. In total, the report says there were 206,300 new cancer diagnoses in 2017.
Kanna wasn’t always a fashion designer. She said she was a chartered accountant for 20 years before starting coKANna in 2015. She said she was never quite at-home as an accountant and her diagnosis was a chance to start a new career.
While clothing can seem like a minor concern for people faced with a cancer diagnosis, it can have a big impact on getting the person themselves through the treatment. Helping the “person” get through treatment was something Kanna said she felt was lacking during her experience with cancer.
“When you’re going through treatment and you lose all your hair and you’re not feeling very good about yourself to begin with, at least you have something that you can put on that looks good and it’s bright and makes you feel better,” she said.
A portion of all sales are donated to the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre, Kanna said. The centre provides support for people in treatment and helps bridge the gap between conventional medicine and complementary care, like massage therapy and acupuncture.
The first piece coKANna released was a zip-up fleece, which Kanna said has sold the best so far. The company also offers a reversible tank-top that can be stepped into and a headscarf with a neck flap to protect sun-sensitive skin during radiation.
“When you lose your hair, that’s pretty traumatic and it’s pretty devastating for someone. I think having something that you can put on really makes a difference.”
Kanna said the business has been growing slowly and steadily over the past three years and plans to continue. Going forward she said the clothing will be more broadly marketed, but will still be designed with cancer patients and their challenges in mind. She said coKANna will always donate a portion of proceeds to organizations helping people through cancer treatment and the clothes will always be made in Canada.
“There are tons of organizations that fundraise for research,” she said. “But I feel there’s not as much money going into helping the person that’s actually going through it now.”