FISHERSVILLE, Va. (WHSV) – A small group of cancer survivors in the Shenandoah Valley took their experiences battling cancer and used it as an opportunity to revitalize services for patients at Augusta Health.
The Appearances Boutique is a lifeline for many cancer patients at Augusta Health, and four women made it their mission to give it a makeover.
The boutique houses wigs, hats, scarves, earrings, and other accessories to aid a person through their diagnosis.
“Most cancer treatments, you lose your hair. And for women, that’s a big deal. If we can just alleviate some of the worry that patients get when they’re diagnosed,” said Augusta Health’s Breast Cancer Nurse Navigator and cancer survivor, Donna Berdeaux.
In her role as a navigator, Berdeaux leads a support group. That’s how she met Patti Piccinino, Carol Cobb, and Suzy VanValkenburg.
“I know it’s difficult, and when you hear the word cancer, you sometimes – you stop hearing things,” Berdeaux said.
Piccinino was diagnosed with Stage 2 Breast Cancer in February 2016.
Cobb found out she had Stage 2 Breast Cancer in April 2019 on her 70th birthday.
VanValenkenburg is freshly out of treatment. She was diagnosed in January 2021 after a mammogram.
Cobb and VanValkenburg attended Berdeaux’s support group after learning their diagnoses. Piccinino attended later since the support group wasn’t up and running when she was diagnosed.
“I just felt at home immediately. There’s all different ages of ladies, all different years out from their treatment, but everyone has been through it. There’s nothing you can say that’s silly or dumb or they can’t help you. It’s just a really safe place to be when you’re going through a horrible time,” said Cobb.
The women said the support group was a place to ask every question you could think of.
“There are a lot of questions and a lot of things you may not want to share with your family because you’re kind of trying to protect them too,” said Piccinino.
After their diagnoses, they took a trip to the Appearance Boutique at Augusta Health, which offers wigs, wig fittings, hats, scarves, and earrings. The accessories are free of charge.
“The coordinator in here was very nice in showing me different styles of wigs and what would look nice on myself. I didn’t want to be the blonde woman, because I’m not really blonde. I wanted to be who I was. You’re losing so much of yourself, or at least it feels like it when you have cancer,” said VanValkenburg.
In that space, they explored who they were and who they might become in the months to come as they took on chemotherapy, surgery, and life as a person with cancer. When Berdeaux suggested they give the Boutique a makeover, the three women were all in.
“I wanted to get involved because I wanted to help create a place that is comfortable, welcoming because when you’re losing your hair or about to lose your hair, you feel very vulnerable,” said Piccinino.
The boutique had served its purpose for them, but they knew they could make it even better.
“If I had this the way it looks now to be able to sit down with somebody and talk about what my fears were and what I was concerned about and this setting we have in here, kind of nice and quiet and calm, that would be fantastic,” said VanValkenburg.
Not only was it a nice place to talk and learn more about a diagnosis, Cobb said it became a place for her to explore her style.
“I never knew I was going to be a flower pattern kind of person. It really was fun. I shopped on my phone all the time,” Cobb said.
Even though the women are finished with treatment and their hair is growing back, they still spend time together and they like to spend time in the boutique.
“This is our place. I like to think of it as my clubhouse. It’s pretty and fun and my friends are here!” Cobb said.
They also still like to talk things out in the support group.
“Six years out now, and I still enjoy the support group because I want to give back. I want to provide some support or help for ladies that are beginning this journey or in it or even on the other side of it. Sometimes even after treatment, it takes a while to process everything that’s happened, everything you’ve gone through, and you still have questions about what to expect,” Piccinino said.
Through the scars and sad memories, the group is able to look back on that journey together.
“Now I consider them more like my friends. We have gotten to know each other. We do a lot of fun things together as a support group,” said Berdeaux.
Since the accessories at the Appearances Boutique are free, donations are helpful to continue their mission.
The group has plans for further improvements to the space, too. If you’d like to donate to the Boutique, click here. Under the designation, click “Other,” and write “Appearances Boutique” in the box for a comment.
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