FISHERSVILLE, Va. (WHSV) – A small group of cancer survivors in the Shenandoah Valley took their experiences fighting cancer and used it as an opportunity to revitalize patient services at Augusta Health.

Appearances Boutique is a lifeline for many cancer patients at Augusta Health, and four women have made it their mission to give it a makeover.

The boutique features wigs, hats, scarves, earrings and other accessories to help a person diagnose themselves.

“Most cancer treatments make your hair fall out. And for women, this is a big deal. If we can just alleviate some of the anxiety that patients get when they are diagnosed,” said Augusta Health breast cancer nurse and cancer survivor Donna Berdeaux.

In her role as navigator, Berdeaux leads a support group. That’s how he met Patti Piccinino, Carol Cobb and Suzy VanValkenburg.

“I know it’s hard, and when you hear the word cancer, sometimes you stop listening to 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 just got 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 as the support group was not in place when she was diagnosed.

“I immediately felt at home. There are all different ages of ladies, all different years since their treatment, but they’ve all been through it. There is nothing you can say that is stupid or stupid or they can’t help you. It’s just a really safe place to be when you’re having a terrible time,” Cobb said.

The women said the support group was a place to ask any question you could think of.

“There are a lot of questions and a lot of things that you might not want to share with your family because you’re trying to protect them, too,” Piccinino said.

After their diagnoses, they took a trip to the Appearance Boutique at Augusta Health, which offers wigs, wig accessories, hats, scarves and earrings. Accessories are free.

“The coordinator here was very nice showing me different wig styles and what would look good on me. 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 a lot of yourself, or at least feeling like you have cancer,” VanValkenburg said.

In that space, they explored who they were and who they could become in the months ahead as they took on chemotherapy, surgery, and life as a person with cancer. When Berdeaux suggested they change boutiques, the three women were all inside.

“I wanted to get involved because I wanted to help create a place that’s comfortable, welcoming, because when you’re losing your hair or about to lose your hair, you feel very vulnerable,” Piccinino said.

The boutique had served its purpose for them, but they knew they could do better.

“If I had this way that it looks like now I could sit down with somebody and talk about what my fears and what I was worried about and this environment that we have here, kind of nice and quiet and peaceful, it would be fantastic,” said VanValkenburg.

Not only was it a fun place to talk and learn more about a diagnosis, Cobb said it became a place for her to explore her own style.

“I never knew I’d be a floral pattern kind of person. It was really fun. I was shopping on my phone all the time,” Cobb said.

Even though the women are done with treatment and their hair is growing back, they still spend time together and enjoy spending time at the boutique.

“This is our country. I like to think of it as my club. It’s nice and fun and my friends are here!” Cobb said.

They also want to talk things out in the support group.

“Six years now, and I still enjoy the support group because I want to give back. I want to give some support or help to ladies who are starting this journey or on it or even on the other side of it. Sometimes even after treatment, I have to some time to process everything that’s happened, everything you’ve been 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 are familiar with each other. We do a lot of fun things together as a support group,” Berdeaux said.

Since the accessories at Appearances Boutique are free, donations are helpful in continuing their mission.

The group also has plans for further improvements in the space. If you would like to donate to the Boutique, click here. Under Definition, click “Other” and type “Appearance Store” in the box for a comment.

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