MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. --
She walked into the room, not expecting much – but finding everything.
Airmen from all over her squadron were there, cheering her on. Ready to shave her head.
Senior Master Sgt. Amber Robbins had breast cancer. It was diagnosed October 27, 2017 after she first discovered a lump that May.
Robbins knew it could have been cancer, but refused to accept the idea.
“I kept putting off [seeing someone] because it just had to be something else,” said Robbins. “I let months go by, but it was still there.”
Once her husband returned from deployment, he convinced her to be seen by a specialist.
After initially receiving her diagnosis, she planned to not tell her children until she and her husband felt they had more information.
“We walked through the garage door and were greeted by my daughter,” said Robbins. “I don’t know if it was because of her big blue eyes, but I looked at her and just started crying.”
That look made Robbins and her husband change their minds.
“I couldn’t keep it in,” Robbins said. “She immediately knew something was wrong.”
The next few months hit Robbins hard. She weighed her options before ultimately having the lump removed, then starting chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Her children stepped up. Since Robbins spent a lot of time at home, her children both handled the chores and took care of her.
“The kids would bring me breakfast, lunch, dinner, anything I needed when I couldn’t muster the strength to get off the couch or out of bed,” said Robbins. “The one thing I really enjoyed was seeing my kids come home from school every day. I wouldn’t change anything from what I experienced the past year.”
Her family wasn’t her only support system. Her Airmen also stepped up after her diagnosis, showing their support a number of different ways. However, one moment stood out to Robbins.
“An Airman walked into my office and told me she only had one request,” said Robbins. “She said, ‘you take care of us, so let us take care of you. We got you.’ When she said that, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head and the walls came down. The one thing I realized through my journey is that people who want to be there for you will be, and it’s not always the people you expect.”
Four months after her diagnosis, Robbins sent out an email to almost every 5th FSS Airmen, inviting them to shave her head.
“I wanted my Airmen to be a part of this,” said Robbins. “Just like my family, they’re also going to see me at my lowest. I wanted them to have an intimate relationship with this journey, which meant hands-on. I wanted their strength to go through me just as my strength goes through them and make them feel like they’re here with me and we’ll fight together.”
Unsure how many Airmen would show up, Robbins walked into her work center on a Saturday morning with no expectations.
The room was packed when she arrived. After placing a trash bag over her clothes, each Airman took their turn shaving a strip of hair.
“Holy smokes, they were there for me,” said Robbins, with excitement. “They weren’t there because I told them to, they came because they wanted to. As much as this [line of work] is professional, I had to share a lot of my personal life with my Airmen.”
Even with all the support from her Airmen, her journey was made even more successful with her husband by her side.
“I’d like to think we complement each other and motivate each other to be better,” said Robbins. “We decided to fight as a family.”
Even though she was the one diagnosed, he took it hard and faced his own challenges through her journey with cancer.
“It probably hit him harder than anyone,” said Robbins. “He’s a fixer, but this was something he could not fix. We reached out to people and created a support team for him too.”
Through the treatments, she stayed strong and was even selected to promote to chief master sergeant, the top one percent of Air Force enlisted Airmen.
Robbins dedicated as much time to studying as she could both during and after chemotherapy appointments.
“There were times I would forget what chapter I read, so I didn’t think I was going to do very good,” said Robbins. “When I found out I made it, I felt overwhelmed and excited.”
Robbins realized that speaking about her experiences helped keep herself together emotionally.
“With a diverse amount of experiences across the Air Force, you never know what someone has gone through,” said Robbins. “Just talking about it lets so many emotions out. There are so many people who knew about the medical side of my condition, but the emotional side was different.”
After 13 months of traveling thousands of miles back and forth for appointments and chemotherapy, she was declared cancer-free and had her final appointment December 2018.
“I got to finish 2018 with a bang, and I can start this year fresh with no chemo and no radiation,” Robbins exclaimed. “Bye cancer! You did nothing to hold me down; I rose above you and will continue to rise above you.”
Even with the higher odds after going through cancer, Robbins said she will never stop fighting.
“When the chief master sergeant of the Air Force names you as one of his heroes, you have to take on a superhero persona,” said Robbins. “Those are big shoes to fill, so I took it very seriously. One of his priorities is self-care. If we can’t take care of ourselves, then we can’t take care of anybody else.”
She also felt that cancer, as devastating as it was, molded her into the person she is today.
“I am definitely not the same person I was two years ago, and I’m never going to be that person again,” said Robbins. “I have to figure out my new normal, and get over the challenges I still face from treatment and all the appointments. So many things hinder my day, but I press forward and move on.”
Anybody can develop cancer. Robbins said she wants to ensure people are aware and have the proper tools to rise above a diagnosis. Her main focus was to make sure her Airmen saw what cancer really looked like.
To Robbins, it was important for Airmen to see her with no hair while in uniform, because in the military it’s uncommon to see that side of people who have experienced cancer.
“If an Airman down the road is diagnosed with cancer, I hope they can think back to that senior master sergeant who rocked a bald head at Minot Air Force Base,” said Robbins. “Maybe I can be their hope.”
Editor’s Note: If you or a loved one are worried about how cancer may affect you, please reach out to the 5th Medical Group at (701) 723-5633.