Cancer Survivors Transform Augusta Health’s Appearances Store

FISHERSVILLE, Va. (WHSV) – A small group of cancer survivors from the Shenandoah Valley have taken their experience battling cancer and used it as an opportunity to revitalize patient services at Augusta Health.

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

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

“Most cancer treatments, you lose your hair. And for women, this is a big problem. If we could just ease some of the worry that patients feel when they are diagnosed,” said Donna Berdeaux, Augusta Health Breast Cancer Navigator and cancer survivor.

In her role as navigator, Berdeaux leads a support group. This is how she met Patti Piccinino, Carol Cobb and Suzy VanValkenburg.

“I know it’s hard, 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 has just come out of treatment. She was diagnosed in January 2021 after a mammogram.

Cobb and VanValkenburg attended Berdeaux’s support group after learning of their diagnoses. Piccinino came later as the support group was not operational when she was diagnosed.

“I immediately felt at home. There are all different ages of women, all different years of their treatment, but everyone has been through this. There’s nothing you can say that’s silly or stupid or that they can’t help you with. It’s just a really safe place 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 also trying to protect them,” Piccinino said.

After their diagnosis, they went to Augusta Health’s Appearance store, which offers wigs, wig accessories, hats, scarves and earrings. Accessories are free.

“The coordinator here was very nice showing 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 really blonde. I wanted to be who I was. You lose so much of yourself, or at least it feels like you have cancer,” VanValkenburg said.

In this space, they explored who they were and who they could become in the months to come as they undertook chemotherapy, surgery and life as a cancer patient. When Berdeaux proposes to revamp the Boutique, the three women are all present.

“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 your hair, you feel very vulnerable,” Piccinino said.

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

“If I had what it looks like now to be able to sit down with someone and talk about my fears and what was worrying me and this setting that we have here, rather nice and calm and calm, it would be fantastic,” VanValkenburg said.

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 style.

“I didn’t know I was going to be a floral pattern type person. It was really fun. I shopped on my phone the whole time,” Cobb said.

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

“It’s our home. I like to think of it as my clubhouse. It’s pretty and fun and my friends are there!” said Cobb.

They also always like to talk things over in the support group.

“Six years later, and I’m still enjoying the support group because I want to give back. I want to provide support or help to women who are starting this journey or in this one or even on the other side of it- Sometimes, even after treatment, it takes a while to process everything that’s happened, everything that you’ve been through, and you still have questions about what to expect,” Piccinino said.

Through scars and sad memories, the band is able to look back on this journey together.

“Now I consider them more like my friends. We got to know each other. We do a lot of fun things together as a support group,” Berdeaux said.

Since the Appearances shop accessories are free, donations are helpful to further their mission.

The group is also planning other improvements to the space. If you would 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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