Candace Dunbar knows the power of a hat.

“Being the age I was and having the boys, you worry about how people are going to look at you and treat you. You just want to look normal and try to fit in,” said Dunbar, the mother of two young children.

She often sported a favorite black baseball cap when she was out and about. Its soft trim inside felt good around her head.

For cancer patients, hats provide warmth while they are without hair and give the feeling of being normal.

As many Chillicothe residents know, the community cheered the breast cancer patient on as she underwent a radical, bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, reconstructive surgeries and a hysterectomy in late 2011 through 2012.

Residents assisted her family, husband Taylor and sons Carson and Caiden, by donating meals for many weeks each night and hosted a benefit for her at Three Sisters Park.

“I wanted to show that same support for every cancer patient and survivor,” said Dunbar.

She brainstormed for different ways to assist cancer patients and came up with Hats for Healing.

“I wanted a way that even if they feel alone, they aren’t,” said Dunbar.

When she was receiving chemotheraphy, she never went to Illinois Cancer Care Center in Peoria alone. Looking around her, she would see others without any companionship.

While she cannot be with each of them physically, the hat is a way for Dunbar to care for them, and “pay it forward.”

Residents assisted her in the hat donation drive, which began at the end of November.

At first, she said the drive started out slow, but picked up speed toward the deadline in late January, ending with more than 350 donated hats.

One woman with breast cancer started a collection at her work, raising funds to buy 45 hats at Charming Charlie.

Dunbar returned to the cancer care center Feb. 1 to hand out the hats collected.

“I don’t think you can prepare yourself enough emotionally,” said Dunbar of the day.

Accompanied by her mom, Peggy Bennett, and sister, Jocelyn Bennett, she visited the three pods of the center’s chemotherapy areas.

In a couple hours, Dunbar chatted with about 35 patients, and either she or her family had assisted them in choosing a hat.

She heard a handful of patients’ stories, and said she would remember their smiles.

“It just looked like Christmas to them. That’s what they called it, ‘Christmas,’” said Dunbar.

She told her mom later, “It was great. If I could quit my job here and volunteer there, I’d do it,” said Dunbar.

A box was left in each pod with the hats so future patients can choose one.

With Dunbar’s chemotherapy ending in July, radiation completed in late October and a hysterectomy Nov. 26, the 33-year-old has found life is beginning to feel familiar again.

“Life’s getting back to normal, thankfully,” she said.

On Dec. 8, she got the all clear and officially became a survivor. She will go back every six months for check-ups.

Before her benefit last year, Dunbar said she learned through her cancer diagnosis how strong she is.

She found something else along the way.

“I learned how willing people are to help others in need. You just need to ask,” she said. “I learned to open my eyes to live and enjoy life and take advantage of the things that you have — the good things in life.”

She plans to make Hats for Healing a yearly event — possibly starting the drive before winter — with some people already telling Dunbar, “Sign me up next year.”