Feeling Whole Again: Hope’s Boutique Helps Women Through Their Cancer Journey

Cassy Burke and Ginny Cunningham

The first one was OK, not quite the right color and a little off around the ears.

The second one was, well, “a little too Dolly (Parton),” joked Virginia “Ginny” Cunningham.

No problem. Cassy Burke grabbed the next wig in her stack.

“That’s not bad,” Cunningham said, looking at herself in the mirror. “It has a little bit of a curl, and when I had my own hair, I always had a little bit of a curl.”

Burke agreed.

“I like it,” the stylist said, as she adjusted and combed the wig. “The highlights are well-blended, it just needs a little trimming. I’ll put it in the maybe pile.”

It’s October 19, another typically busy day at Hope’s Boutique, the non-profit shop on the ground floor of the Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center.

It was also the 18th anniversary celebration of the boutique, and Cunningham was one of the scores of current and former patients, as well as family members and friends, who stopped by for an appointment, to shop and to say hello to their friends who work and volunteer there.

“Everyone here remembers your name, everyone,” said Cunningham, 80, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987 and had a reoccurrence in 2003. Her hair, which was already thinning, never grew back. “I bring other women here; I just brought my friend who is also going through breast cancer.”

Hope’s Boutique offers a complete line of services and products for women who have been diagnosed with and treated for all types of cancer, including synthetic and human-hair wigs, bras and the prostheses that seamlessly fit inside these bras. The boutique also has a full line of chemical-free, skin-care and makeup products and an on-site makeup artist; hats, head wraps, sleep caps and scarves; swimwear and lingerie designed for cancer patients; jewelry, greeting cards and other unique gifts.

The idea for Hope’s Boutique came from Wendy Avner, who battled and beat both breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

“Wendy said, I never want another woman to have to go through what I went through, to have to go to a medical-supply company to get a prosthesis,” said Kathy Worly, one of the boutique’s eight volunteers.

And so, Avner founded Hope’s Boutique in partnership with The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).

Janine Killilea helped Avner open the original boutique in 1998, which moved to the Breast Center when it opened in 2011. “When we first opened, Wendy said, ‘Do you think we’ll ever be busy?’” Killilea said with a chuckle. Hope’s Boutique is busy these days. Very busy.

“We have 23 appointments today,” said Kathi Robbins, manager of Hope’s Boutique. The majority were with the boutique’s specially trained and licensed prosthesis and bra fitters, such as Killilea, while the others were with the wig stylists, such as Burke. There were scores more walk ins who came to shop.

“That’s a higher number than usual,” Robbins said of the 23 appointments. “We usually have 13 or 15 a day, although the number is creeping up. The word is getting out about us and, unfortunately, there’s a real need.”

Killilea tried to retire, back in 2009. It didn’t take.

“I missed all my ladies,” she said. And so, she came back in 2012 and now works part-time.

One of her ladies is Pamelia Roberts, who came in for a new prosthesis. Killilea has fitted thousands of women, and instinctively knew the right prosthesis for Roberts.

“I wanted to be fitted as soon as my doctor gave me the go-ahead after my surgery,” Roberts said of her mastectomy. The go-ahead came three months after her surgery.

The prosthesis Killilea selected did indeed fit properly.

“I feel like me now,” Roberts said. “It feels like the other side, like it should be.”

Feeling — and looking — like they did before their surgery and treatment is an important psychological boost for women. The 10 staff members and eight volunteers of Hope’s Boutique understand this, and make sure their ladies leave feeling good about themselves.

Cunningham felt great about her new wig — and her stylist.

“This lady is fabulous,” Cunningham says of Burke, who has been fitting her for wigs, on a yearly basis, for about a decade.

Burke also reconditioned and restyled Cunningham’s year-old wig, which is frayed around the edges. She can now use it as her “backup.”

“That’s from the oven,” Burke says of some of the wear and tear and singes. “And the dishwasher is so hot it can singe the edges too.”

Cunningham promised not to wear her new wig when she cooks. Or opens the dishwasher right after a cycle.

Burke and Cunningham have become great friends. They compare notes on their families, recent trips and various outings. There are lots of smiles and laughs, as Burke works her magic on the new wig.

“You have to have a positive attitude, you have to have a good sense of humor when you have cancer,” says Cunningham, who then launches into a very humorous golf story. It seems that several years ago, she was playing golf with a few friends, she took a mighty swing and “my prosthesis flew right out of my bra, right down the middle of the fairway.”

“We now have pocketed bras so the prosthesis stays in place,” Burke said.

Burke finished styling Cunningham’s new wig.

“What do you think about the bangs?” she asks.

“I like them,” says Cunningham, who looks lovely. “They look very nice.”

Related Reading:

Hope's Boutique: An Extraordinary Specialty Shop For Cancer Patients and Their Families

Hope's Boutique Helps Cancer Patients Regain Confidence