Cancer survivors transform Augusta Health pop-up shop

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 Augusta Health’s patient services.

The Appearances Boutique is a lifesaver for many cancer patients at Augusta Health, and four women dedicated themselves to giving it a makeover.

The store contains wigs, hats, scarves, earrings and other accessories to help a person through their diagnosis.

“Most cancer treatments, you lose hair. And for women, that’s a big deal. If we can just ease some of the worry that patients have when they’re diagnosed,” said Donna Berdeaux, the nurse Augusta Health Breast Cancer Navigator and Cancer Survivor.

In his 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 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 just got out of treatment. She was diagnosed in January 2021 after a mammogram.

Cobb and VanValkenburg attended Berdeaux’s support group after learning of her diagnoses. Piccinino attended later, as the support group was not in operation when he was diagnosed.

“I felt at home immediately. There are all ages of women, all different years of their treatment, but everyone has been through it. There’s nothing you can say is silly or stupid or that they can’t help you. It’s a really safe place to be when you’re going through a horrible time,” Cobb said.

The women said the support group was a place to ask all the questions 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 as well,” Piccinino said.

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

“The coordinator here was very kind to show me different styles of wigs and what would look good on me. I didn’t want to be the blonde woman, because I’m not blonde. I wanted to be who I was. You’re missing out on a lot of yourself, or at least it feels like when you have cancer,” VanValkenburg said.

In this space, they explored who they were and who they might become in the coming months as they dealt with 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 comfortable, welcoming place because when you’re losing your hair or about to lose it, you feel very vulnerable,” Piccinino said.

The store had served its purpose for them, but they knew they could make it even better.

“If I had this as it is now to be able to sit down with someone and talk about what my fears were and what I was worried about and this environment that we have here, kind of nice and calm and quiet, that would be great,” VanValkenburg said.

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 floral print kind of person. It was really fun. I shopped on my phone all the time,” Cobb said.

Even though the women have finished treatment and their hair is growing back, they still spend time together and enjoy spending time in the store.

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

They also like to talk about things in the support group.

“It’s been six years now, and I still enjoy the support group because I want to come back. I want to support or help women who are starting this journey or on it or even on the other side. Sometimes, even after treatment, it takes a while 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 this journey together.

“Now I consider them more like my friends. we have met We do a lot of fun things together as a support group,” Berdeaux said.

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

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

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