When Leslie Noehren and herhusband Justin, moved with their young children from Omaha to Yankton in 2017, the main focus was to help out her parents. Leslie’s folks, John and Sally Schroeder are the proud owners of the Copper Roof Ranch, which houses their Sassy Cat Quilting Company. John had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2016 and Leslie wanted to be living nearby, to support her parents with anything they needed.

Sadly, like many people, this wasn’t Leslie’s first personal experience knowing people battling the disease. Her best friend nearly died from breast cancer, then more close friends were diagnosed in the following years. It was these experiences, which led to Leslie receiving specialized cosmetology training in Omaha with a program called “Look Good Feel Better.” This training was focused on “teaching beauty techniques to people with cancer to help them manage the appearance-related side effects of cancer treatment. The program included lessons on skin and nail care, cosmetics, wigs and turbans, accessories and styling. Its purpose is helping people with cancer to find some normalcy in a life that is by no means normal.”

One of Leslie’s favorite clients is Kristi Tacki. If you ran into Kristi today, you would never guess the trials she’s been through. She is radiant, with an obvious flare for fashion. She has a chic,  contemporary hairstyle, a brilliant smile and a bounce in her step. She gives all the credit for her hair, to her stylist Leslie. Kristi and her three young daughters aged 6, 7 and 10 at the time, had been going to Leslie’s salon for a few years prior to her unexpected diagnosis with Hodgkin’s lymphoma early in January of 2019. When Kristi went to Sioux Falls for her chemotherapy treatments, and was told by a medical professional after her first one, very bluntly that, “You’re going to need to cut your hair right away. Don’t wait, it will begin to fall out in the next week or so.”

As Kristi was going through her cancer treatments, she had a conversation with Sheila Kuchta, regional director of the Avera Foundation, about the new program that the Avera Cancer Institute (ACI) in Yankton was planning to launch.

The “New Look, Same You” program was to replace the “Look Good Feel Better” program that ACI had utilized in the past. Sheila was hoping that the program could kick off with funds raised during the Avera Foundation’s annual Grand Give fundraiser.

This event helps support many programs for cancer patients, such as transportation assistance to get to treatments, access to massage treatments, exercise classes, nutrition counseling, complimentary Miaderm skin cream, and the ACI Navigation Center.

Upon hearing about the new program, Kristi knew that she and her husband, Kyle, wanted to be involved. She had received her treatment in Sioux Falls, where she had access to a similar program. She wanted that option for people in the Yankton area. Together, they offered a matching gift challenge to support the “New Look, Same You” program and helped raise over $18,000 during the 2019 fundraiser.

But it didn’t stop there. Kristi soon introduced Sheila and the ACI staff to Leslie as the perfect partner for the “New Look, Same You” program. With Leslie’s help, donors to the Avera Foundation are positioned to make a real difference for cancer patients in the region.

Leslie’s connection with the “Look Good Feel Better” program gave her the experience she needed to help Kristi and other patients, but her passion to help was also fueled by her personal experiences with cancer among those she loved.

Originally, while still in Omaha, Leslie wasn’t as hands-on with the entire process as she wanted to be in the “Look Good, Feel Better” program. Her partnership with the ACI and Avera Foundation gives her the opportunity to be a primary beautician contact for cancer patients from start to finish, and every step in between. Thanks to the donors that supported the Avera Foundation, the “New Look, Same You” program provides a selection of wig samples to try on, a custom wig and complimentary gift bag free of charge for anyone in the Avera Sacred Heart region, regardless if they are an Avera patient or not. The ACI and other providers in the community have referred patients to Leslie for her assistance with the loss of their hair due to cancer treatment.

Kristi had very thick, long blonde hair, and she remembers being worried about what her daughters would think. “My girls loved braiding it, combing it, and playing with it. That was how they knew me… the healthy me. “ “Are you going to you lose your hair Mama?” was the first question they asked when they learned about their mother’s diagnosis. Like most people, they associated cancer mainly with the hair loss. That was their main concern, and the idea was very scary for them. Kristi states, “Cancer is a very visible, dramatic change that people often go through. Now all the sudden you look so different, and that is the sick version of you. I wish I didn’t have to change so visibly.”

When Kristi contacted Leslie about her dilemma, Leslie was ready to go with a plan of action. She told Kristi, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything!” She gave Kristi specific instructions, and when the inevitable happened, she got Kristi into her salon right away. Kristi had received a complimentary wig through Avera early in her diagnosis, and she brought this with her when she went to Leslie for her hair cut. Leslie helped customize the wig in the most flattering way possible for Kristi, and gave lots of expert advice about wig care, cosmetics and what to expect during her cancer journey.

The Tacke girls felt reassured when their mother told them that Leslie would make sure she looked good, especially since she’d been doing their hair too and they knew her so well. Kristi shares that “Having the wig not only made me feel more confident in blending in with people, but it made my youngest daughter feel the most comfortable with me going out in public. She was worried that people would look at me funny, feel sorry for me, or make fun of me. Having the wig available helped me to not look sick, which was so very important for them while I was going through my cancer treatment. “

Kristi recalls, “At the time, I felt so lucky to have this wonderful support system, knowing that what Avera provided in Sioux Falls for wigs, wasn’t available anywhere locally.” She hoped something similar could happen in Yankton. Kristi recommends that anyone that needs to find a wig, should trust in the expert’s advice and “Leave it to the experts.” People want a wig that makes them look as close to normal as possible, but people change greatly during treatment and for example, blondes can often look washed out, whereas a different, warmer color of hair, would be much more complimentary. Kristi suggested getting a light pink wig, but her girls quickly vetoed that idea! Leslie chimes in to encourage cancer patients to bring a support person they trust with them to their appointment when getting their major haircut or choosing a wig. Often these friends and family members can turn a stressful, difficult appointment, into something much more comfortable and positive. Kristi says she decided to make the appointment as fun as possible. She tried on a wide variety of styles and colors of wigs, before choosing a light brown wig, in a bob length. She later purchased a second wig, because over time the original suffered some wear and tear, and she wanted to have a back-up for special occasions.

Kristi knows firsthand that, “It’s hard to feel good when you look in the mirror and you don’t recognize yourself.” Leslie knew all about how to use products such as head wraps, special shampoos and cosmetics that help with having eyelashes and eyebrows. When Leslie is working with a special referral, that person has her undivided attention. She locks the door to her salon, to ensure privacy for her client and gives them all the time they need. Some people return for multiple visits during their treatment, and Leslie is always happy to help. She wants her clients to feel pampered and cared for during their appointments.

Leslie wants to stress to her cancer clients that, “The hair isn’t the main concern. What’s really important, is doing everything you can to get healthy. That’s what I care about!” She often tells people, “Don’t worry about the hair, I’ve got that covered. You are important to me, and I will make you a priority. If you don’t like the way your wig looks, we will figure it out and I will keep working with you until we get it right!”

When Kristi first told Leslie the news about her cancer, Leslie replied “Oh my gosh Kristi! That’s similar to the type of cancer that my dad has! His cancer is the reason I moved here.” Kristi then responded, “I don’t necessarily believe he’s the only reason you were meant to be here.” Leslie has come to agree, especially with the development of their new program. Obviously there’s a much bigger force at work, that’s guided Leslie and continues to help in mysterious ways. The “New Look, Same You” program will surely help brighten the days of many people in the years to come.