FARGO – Still sleepy from a nap, 1-year-old Aurora King pats her curly black locks as she looks up at her mom.
“She will touch her hair like ‘What is this stuff? Mommy and Daddy don’t have it, why do I?’ ” says 27-year-old Amber Lockwood of Fargo, N.D.
A nurse at the Roger Maris Cancer Center politely interrupts as Amber runs her fingers through her daughter’s hair.
It’s time to switch bags.
For the remainder of the day, chemotherapy and anti-nausea medications will be fed to the port above Amber’s right breast where a 3-centimeter Stage 1 tumor has shrunk to 1 centimeter.
She’ll feel sleepy and nauseous but says it’s nothing compared to what she endured nearly a decade ago.
Cancer at 18
A friend playfully hit Amber in the arm as they crossed paths at Fargo North High School in 2005. It “really hurt” and a large bruise formed.
After friends and family members insisted, Amber asked a doctor check the bump when she went in for a physical before starting college at North Dakota State University.
An X-ray showed something the technician had never seen before, and the next morning, Amber’s doctor asked her to come in.
“They said, ‘You have cancer.’ I was 18 years old and didn’t know what it was. I had a lot of depression,” Amber says.
While her friends were meeting new people and living in the dorms, Amber was in the hospital receiving chemo.
After five months, the egg-size tumor in her upper left arm hadn’t shrunk, and a six-hour surgery was performed to remove the bone that contained the Stage 3 cancer. A cadaver bone replaced Amber’s bone, and doctors at Mayo Clinic in Rochester were certain they’d removed most of the cancerous cells.
Amber started chemo again, just two weeks after the surgery, to kill any remaining cancer. She stayed in the hospital for a month and a half, and time at home was dotted with emergency room visits for fevers, nausea, mouth sores and vomiting.
By May 2006, doctors concluded that chemotherapy wasn’t working – there was nothing more they could do. Amber’s body was so worn down that she had a feeding tube and needed blood transfusions almost every week.
“Her skin was turning black. She couldn’t eat. It was the most awful thing. She was dying, and it was just so scary because he (the doctor) said, ‘It’s not working, she can’t recover enough from this chemo,’ ” recalls Amber’s mom, Sharon Smithberg.
Dr. Nathan Kobrinsky, Amber’s pediatric oncologist at Sanford, told the family about a new chemotherapy he’d learned about at a convention. The drug was rush-processed through Amber’s insurance, and she started the treatment.
For eight years, she was cancer-free.
In the fall of 2013, Amber felt a lump in her right breast but figured it was from breastfeeding Aurora.
She didn’t get the lump checked for about a month.
The first doctor she saw said it was nothing – “You’re too young for breast cancer.”
Knowing it might be something, Amber requested an ultrasound. On Oct. 23, 2013, she was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer.
“It was devastating, but I knew what I’d been through before, and nothing could be worse,” Amber says.
She started chemo, and her doctor suggested a lumpectomy. Amber chose a double mastectomy.
“I’m getting everything removed,” she says.
Once her treatment is complete, which will likely be Feb. 24, Amber’s breasts will be removed. A plastic surgeon will start the reconstructive surgery process, which will take place over six months.
“Surgery from cancer has definitely left some large scars on my body and aren’t the prettiest to look at. The scars have led to me have many insecurities but also made me stronger,” Amber says. “These scars are my battle wounds to show that I am a fighter and I will beat cancer, not once, but twice, now at the young age of 27.”
So far, breast cancer is “nothing compared to bone cancer,” Amber says.
She’s lost weight and still feels nauseous and weak after chemo, but she knows what she can and can’t eat and what makes her feel better since she’s been through cancer before.
Her hair fell out, like it did when she had chemo for bone cancer, and her eyelashes and brows thinned. But this time around, she’s not wearing a wig.
“When I was 18, I was trying to hide, and it felt like no one talked about it. I tried hiding it with the wig. I feel like it’s so much better being stronger,” Amber says. “You get the weird looks, but people are just trying to figure it out, like I wonder if she has cancer.”
Tara Lockwood, Amber’s older sister, says Amber is peaceful and confident as she fights breast cancer. She remembers Amber being frustrated and more self-conscious when she had bone cancer.
“She can go anywhere and smile and act like she doesn’t have cancer,” Tara says. “Everybody will look at her because she doesn’t have hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, and she blocks that out. That’s what’s different. Now, she’s focused on her daughter and her life.”
When Amber was treated for bone cancer, she knew chemo could damage her ovaries. But she didn’t freeze her eggs since it wasn’t covered by insurance, and at age 18, she wasn’t thinking about starting a family.
Although she knew it was almost impossible since she has only one ovary (the other was removed when she was in middle school because of another health issue) and had been through chemo, Amber was certain she was pregnant before she’d even taken a test.
“I’ve never thought I’ve been pregnant, and I just knew right away,” she says.
The pregnancy was typical, and Aurora was born without complications one year ago today.
“Having Aurora was such a miracle,” Amber says. “I get to wake up to her, and even when I’m sick, I’m like ‘I want to play with you.’ She definitely lightens my day. No matter how sick I am, I can look at her and be happy.”
Tommie King, Amber’s fiancé and Aurora’s dad, says it was difficult to learn his girlfriend of two and a half years had cancer, especially since they have a baby now.
“I just didn’t want to think it was real. But I just keep going,” he says. “I know that she’s going to make it through this, and we’re going to be good.”
Sharon thinks Tommie and Aurora’s presence have helped Amber stay strong. She calls Tommie Amber’s “security blanket.”
“He’s positive. She doesn’t like people to be emotional. She gets mad if I get teary,” Sharon says. “He cooks things she’ll eat. He doesn’t push, and I think she appreciates that.”
Amber’s family doesn’t have a history of cancer, but the new mom worries that her daughter has a greater risk of cancer.
“That’s the one thing I worry about a lot, what did I pass to her? I have no idea. My old doctor said it could be genetics. There’s no way I got cancer twice without a connection,” Amber says.
She was tested for the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 gene mutations but hasn’t seen her results. The inherited genes put a woman at an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers, and they’ve been associated with increased risks of other types of cancer.
‘It affects everyone’
Amber’s family didn’t know anyone who’d had cancer until she was diagnosed. Her sister Tara describes the experience as the “whole family having cancer.”
“It affects everyone – we all lose sleep, we all miss work, we all stress, we all feel physically, emotionally and mentally sick,” she says.
Tara organized a fundraiser to relieve her sister of some of the financial strain of cancer. The January event raised about $22,000 – enough to cover Amber’s medical bills up to her double mastectomy.
“I’ve always protected her and been there for her. It was hard for me to not be able to get this away from her and make her better,” Tara says. “I wanted to do as much as I could to make her cancer, this time, that much easier. It’s amazing how much money it costs to heal yourself.”
Throughout treatment for breast cancer, Tara’s seen her sister maintain a positive attitude.
“I look at my sister, and she makes me want to do one thing every day that makes me happy. Not live one day without doing something,” she says.
After reconstructive surgery, Amber will start planning her wedding, and she’s most excited for her hair to grow back so Aurora can see she’s just like mom.