We chose Amber Stephens as our first feature for Tribe 49. Each month, Tribe 49 will spotlight a local leading lady. Our tribe of local Alaskan women is comprised of many amazing, talented ladies whose tremendous impact on our community often remain unrecognized. Although their stories of success differ, each woman shares the natural beauty and tenacious spirit of the 49th State. By sharing their journeys, we hope to uplift girls and women who face the same challenges in health, career or personal struggles.
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Sadly, each of us know someone that has been affected by cancer. Amber Stephens is a 41 year old lifelong Alaskan, wife, mother and advocate. She initially reached out to Love, 49 in search of custom bras after completing preventative surgeries for breast cancer. Amber’s story is a testament of self love. We deeply admire her willingness to face life’s trials head on and her constant strength to overcome physical and emotional challenges.
In April of 2016, Amber’s half-sister contacted her to tell her she was fighting breast cancer and had been tested positive for the BRCA gene and that her daughter was also a carrier of the BRCA2+ gene. Amber’s sister had become a part of a research program and discovered that their father is a carrier. Amber immediately got tested and learned that she was also was a carrier for the BRCA gene. The hereditary BRCA gene mutation increases the risk of female breast and ovarian cancer. The mutations found in the two gene types (BRCA1 and BRCA2) account for 20-25% of hereditary breast cancers and 15% of overall ovarian cancers.
Amber’s mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer four years before, but tested negative as a gene carrier, so doctors told Amber not to worry about being tested. At 39, Amber was faced with making immediate decisions that would forever change her life. In July 2016, Amber had a total hysterectomy to eliminate her chances of ovarian cancer. In November 2016, Amber had a double mastectomy and reconstruction in February 2017 to eliminate any chance of breast cancer which she discovered runs in her family.
We sat down with Amber to discuss her health journey.
On being proactive about your health…
It was an opportunity for me to be able to really take charge of my own health. When you take the tests, you have to be prepared for the results because if you get positive results or inconclusive results- which can happen- you can’t just ignore what you've just been told. So then what do you do? You just have to be ready to accept that you’re going to be forced to make some decisions that you may not have been ready to make.
I do think a positive mind and trusting in your team of doctors or however you’re going to go forward is really important. That’s what got me through it.
On womanhood and body image...
I will say a month after it was done, around February, I went through a grieving stage. I always joked about hysterectomies saying, “I’d love not to get a period.” Well, when you take away your breasts and the body parts that society uses to deem you as a woman, you feel that loss.
I asked, “Am I a woman? Am I womanly enough?” because now I don’t have breasts, I have implants. They don’t have tissue anymore so that was a really introspective time in my life, where I hadn’t thought of those things. So it’s important for us as women to, you know, embrace that. Our bodies don’t define us as women, but society does do that, so it is hard.
I am a woman, I have carried three children in my body and even if I hadn’t, I would still be a woman through and through.
I did a lot to myself in a very short amount of time. That was really overwhelming. I am amazed at how strong our bodies are and how quickly it heals. These surgeries were painful emotionally and physically at times. But the silver lining for me was that it was a means to an end and would lead me to a long and healthy life.
On her select tribe...
I have a small tribe of women and that’s something that as we get older, we realize. When I was younger I had a big circle of friends. As you get older, people change, you change and that’s what we’re supposed to do- lives change. So having people in my life that trusted my decisions was important. I had acquaintances in my life that I thought were good friends, but as things progressed they questioned me saying, “You’re kinda being over dramatic...” “Are you making too big of a decision?” “Why don’t you just get monitored?” Well, every time you get an MRI or mammogram, you’re radiating your body. The whole point was not to ever get breast cancer. That was the whole point for me.
It’s important to surround yourself with people that believe and trust in your own decisions. It was important for me to have people in my corner that didn’t question every little decision I was making.
On her biggest flaw...
Learning how to accept help. That’s one of my character flaws. It’s hard for me to accept it and really learning and letting people that showed up and wanted to help be able to help me. That was the biggest life hack for me through that journey.
On growing older and wiser...
My body is strong. I had three major surgeries and you wouldn’t know that. I think that we forget how precious our lives are and bodies are- whatever size we are. And being really positive is important. I was always focused on why I was doing it. I was just 40 and it seems old sometimes, but it’s really not. It’s the beginning of a whole new section of life that’s pretty wonderful. I’m only 41, I know that life’s getting better. I’m wiser, I have more experience, I’m able to not take myself so seriously and focus on what’s important.
On her favorite piece of clothing/lingerie...
I have a silk night gown that is white and every time I put it on I feel fancy and sexy.
On words of wisdom for women in their...
Teens: You are harder on yourself more than anyone else, enjoy life to the fullest do not worry so much about what other people are thinking, they are most likely not even thinking about you but about themselves.
Early 20s: Enjoy how strong and amazing you truly are. If you can dream it and are willing to work for it anything is possible.
Late 20s: Learning that no one will ever love you as much as you love yourself - rewrite those tapes that play in your head to kind words, and no negative vibes.
Early 30s: Make time for yourself - be as kind to YOU as you are to a good friend.
Late 30s: Life keeps getting better - wisdom and life experience are key. 40s are full of changes body and mind.
If you or anyone you know is faced with or has questions regarding hereditary breast cancer, please visit the FORCE website: http://www.facingourrisk.org/index.php