Strength in Beauty

Heidi Fuller’s Awakenings boutique is bringing comfort and joy to women battling cancer

By Mariah Kline

Photos by Kathryn Harrington

Heidi Fuller had no intention of opening a boutique. For 10 years, she climbed the corporate ladder working for Starbucks. But shortly after turning 37, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and underwent a hysterectomy. That surgery led to a far scarier diagnosis after an eight-centimeter tumor was found in her ovary.

One surgery turned into several months of chemotherapy and radiation and a drastic physical and emotional change. While weathering this storm, the idea of opening a wig store was planted.

“I was devastated about losing my hair,” she says. “But my wig was everything to me, and it is for a lot of women.”

Fuller launched the online version of Awakenings Boutique in July 2016 while continuing to work for Starbucks. Shortly thereafter, she realized her calling was no longer in the corporate realm but with women who were going through the same battle she had already faced. She opened the boutique’s storefront in May 2017 and hasn’t looked back.

The atmosphere of Awakenings is intentionally curated to feel comfortable and pleasant, a great departure from the sterile hospital environment so many of Fuller’s customers are forced into. Curtained off dressing rooms with vanities allow women to try on wigs in privacy while a table setting outside of the rooms allows loved ones to be a part of the experience without hovering. Inspirational quotes and phrases cover the walls in nearly every part of the store. Most importantly, Fuller’s enthusiastic yet understanding personality makes it impossible not to derive comfort from her presence. She even keeps her own head shaved in order to better relate to her customers.

Buyers are set up for success because each wig comes with essential hair care products, and women are taught how to style and care for each piece. Doing demos, fittings and even shaving heads sets the Awakenings experience apart, which Fuller has strived to do since the very beginning.

“Women are coming in here, they are broken and cancer has invaded their body,” she says. “Then, they’re gearing up for either surgery or chemo, or maybe they’ve already had surgery. Cancer has already taken so much from them – mentally, physically and even taking body parts – and then they have to come in and look for a wig. Not a lot of women look forward to it.”

Fuller does her best to make the experience as easy as possible for women who aren’t sure where to begin. Awakenings offers both synthetic and human hair wigs as well as hair pieces and toppers for those with thinning hair or alopecia. Human hair wigs require more work but offer the most natural look and feel. Fuller prefers synthetic wigs, however, and typically fits customers into synthetics first due to the minimal maintenance they require.

“After people start treatment and they’re going through chemo and everything, they don’t want to do their hair,” she says. “With these, you just put it on and go and you can style them with your hands. You don’t have to curl it or braid it.”

In addition to wigs, Awakenings sells other products to assist with recovery, including a skin care line specifically formulated for radiation burns; tea tree oil, which helps restore nails that chemo so often damages; and items for lymphedema – swelling of the lymph nodes – since the problem frequently persists even when someone has entered remission. Specialty clothing, gifts and accessories (and some surprisingly humorous greeting cards for the recently diagnosed) make up the rest of the store.

In April, Fuller celebrated her two-year anniversary of being in remission. Following her surgery, she accepted that she would not be able to have children of her own and was fulfilled with her role as stepmother to her husband’s two children. A year and a half after she finished treatment, however, she and her husband temporarily took in a relative’s baby girl so she wouldn’t have to enter the foster care system. 

“She’s the light of my life,” she says. “I know for a fact that before cancer, I wouldn’t have taken in a baby. I wouldn’t have had the time; I was traveling and always climbing that (corporate) ladder. God put a plan in place and it’s led me to here with a three-year-old and my health and being this person to really help lead the fight against cancer and help every person that I possibly can.”

She won’t settle for only helping those who walk in her store, though. Since opening last year, Fuller has donated thousands of dollars to local cancer institutions and donated more than 90 wigs to women who can’t afford them. Her next philanthropic effort is a photo shoot and campaign that she’s launching in the coming months. The photos taken will highlight 15 to 20 women who are currently going through or have recently completed treatment for cancer.

“The mission is to showcase real women,” she says. “When women go online to search for wigs, they’re already broken and feeling the diagnosis. What I’ve found with customers is that it’s already traumatic and then they have to see manufacturers using professional models who are young and beautiful to showcase their wigs. That just adds to the anxiety of wearing a wig because you don’t think you can pull that off.”

The purpose of Fuller’s campaign is to both support women fighting cancer and show the beauty that still exists even after a diagnosis.

“These women are so beautiful without hair,” she says. “They come in here and 99 percent of the time, they’re crying and then by the time they leave, they’ve had fun. If we can kind of ease that anxiety prior to them picking out their new hair, it would help them a lot.”

Awakenings may be a young institution but Fuller’s passion for the business, first-hand experience and love for others will most certainly result in future success in our community and beyond.

“If you let it, cancer will take a lot from you,” she says. “But picking out your new hair or shaving your head is a win against it because cancer can’t take your wig. Cancer cannot touch your soul. There’s so much cancer can’t take from us, and when you start thinking that way, it’s a game changer. It can’t take laughter, it can’t take love, it can’t take your family or your memories. When you continue to live your life, continue to love and to fight, all of those are wins.” VT

Awakenings Boutique

9708 Brownsboro Road #4604

awakenshop.com

502.384.6780