Cancer survivors transform Augusta Health’s presence boutique

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 Augusta Health patients.

Appearance Boutique is a lifeline for many cancer patients at Augusta Health, and four women have made it their mission to change that.

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

“A lot of cancer treatments, you lose your hair. And for women, that’s a big deal. If we can reduce the anxiety that patients have when they find out,” said Donna Burdex, a breast cancer nurse navigator at Augusta Health and a cancer survivor.

In her role as navigator, Burdex leads the support group. That’s how she met Patti Pixino, Carol Cobb and Suzy VanValkenburg.

“I know it’s hard, and when you hear the word cancer, you sometimes — you stop hearing things,” Burdex said.

Piccinino was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in February 2016.

Cobb was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in April 2019, on her 70th birthday.

VanValenkenburg is just out of treatment. She was diagnosed in January 2021 after a mammogram.

Cobb and VanValkenburg attended Bardo’s support group after learning of their diagnosis. Piccinino later participated because the support group wasn’t up and running when she was diagnosed.

“I immediately felt at home. There are all different ages of women, all different years from their treatment, but everyone is going through it. There’s nothing you can say is stupid or dumb or they can’t help you. It’s just a really safe The place is when you’re going through a terrible time,” Cobb said.

The women said the support group is a place to ask every question you can think of.

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

After their diagnosis, they traveled to Augusta Health’s Appearance Boutique, which offers wigs, wig fittings, hats, scarves and earrings. Accessories are free.

“The coordinator here was great at showing me different styles of wigs and what looked good on me. I don’t want to be a white woman, because I’m not really white. I wanted to be who I am. You lose a lot of yourself, or at least you feel that way when you have cancer,” VanValkenburg said.

In that place, they discover who they are and who they can be in the months to come as they go through chemotherapy, surgery, and life as a person with cancer. When Burdex suggested they give the boutique a makeover, the three women were all in.

“I want to join because I want to help create a comfortable, welcoming space because when you’re losing your hair or losing your hair, you feel very vulnerable,” Piccinino said.

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

“If I had it like this, it would seem to be able to sit down with someone and talk about what my fears were and what I was worried about and this setting that we have here, nice and quiet and peaceful. Fantastic,” VanValkenburg said.

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

“I never knew I was going to be a flower pattern kind of person. It was really fun. I always shop on my phone,” Cobb said.

Even though the hair grows back after the treatment, the women spend time together and prefer to spend time in the boutique.

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

They still like to talk in support groups.

“It’s been six years now, and I still enjoy the support group because I want to give back. I want to provide some support or help for women who are starting this journey or on the other side of it. Sometimes even after treatment, it takes a little to process everything. It takes time, everything you’ve been through, and you still have questions about what to expect,” Piccino said.

Through wounds and tragic memories, the group is able to look back on that journey together.

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

Since the items at Presence Boutique are free, donations help continue their mission.

There are also plans to further improve the group’s space. If you would like to donate to the boutique, click here. Under Designation, click “Other” and write “Appearance Boutique” in the comment box.

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