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Amber Turner's Unexpected Blessings

How one mom gave birth to a children's book while staring down breast cancer

Amber McRee Turner sharing family stories with daughter, Lainey.

Amber McRee Turner sharing family stories with daughter, Lainey.

photographs by Heather Simmons

When dinner is over and the house has grown still, Amber Turner often tucks her daughter, Lainey, into bed and proceeds to tell her a story. Her tales aren’t fanciful ones inspired by fairies or gnomes. Instead, these everyday ramblings focus on what it means to celebrate life, with all its messiness. They feature Amber or Lainey’s father, Brian, or Lainey’s grandmother, Vervee, and the ways they have chosen to live their lives. Amber weaves these tales in hopes of creating a family mosaic her 8-year-old will carry with her long after she and the others are gone.

You see, Amber was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 36. Now 40, she recognizes the preciousness of ordinary time. Like her mother, Amber carries a harmful mutation of the BRCA 1 gene, which puts her at greater risk for breast and ovarian cancer. Vervee has successfully battled the disease twice in her life, and through her, Amber has learned about what it means to face the challenges life brings and recognize the blessings.

Amber’s time with cancer came sooner than expected, yet she realized there were stories here too, about resilience and hope and believing in your dreams.

“I didn’t think I needed to grow through cancer, but I was wrong — way wrong. Every one of us goes through something in our lives and we choose how to use it,” she says. “Cancer made me want to celebrate the magic in everyday life.” 

Amber’s journey began with the discovery of the lump in her breast back in April 2008. When the medical report showed a stage 2 cancer, Amber elected to have a double mastectomy. During chemo, she steadily sent out story ideas to publishers about a children’s book she wanted to write. Finally, a little magic took hold; one publisher who liked her picture book manuscript asked to see more. “I had never considered writing a novel until that editor asked to see more of my work,” she says. “It was such freedom, it allowed me to write, write, write.” 

Thus began her children’s novel, Sway. She steadily worked on this story, about a young girl and her father, sending out query letters until she eventually found an agent. Then came another health setback — she would need a hysterectomy — followed by a blessing — it was after awakening from surgery that she learned Disney would be publishing her book.  

“So many pivotal moments were tied to my cancer treatment,” she says in hindsight. “I’m just grateful to be here to celebrate it.”

This month Sway is being released by Disney *Hyperion. It should come as no surprise that Amber’s characters, too, must overcome life’s obstacles. In the book, 10-year-old Cass and her father learn how to cope with the abrupt departure of her mother, who takes up with another man. The pair embarks on an inventive road trip that serves to put the sparkle back into their lives. Amber hopes her story might provide lightness for children dealing with dark problems of their own. 

 “I want my books to reflect that; to enjoy the twisty, turny, magical way our lives are blessed. Even with moms who run away, or dads who die in tornados,” she says.

   Following our conversation, Amber learned her mother, Vervee, is under siege again, facing her third battle with breast cancer in 20 years. Yet instead of focusing on the darkness, she is celebrating the light — that this chest tumor is operable instead of being secreted elsewhere in her body. She says her mother’s biggest worry isn’t the cancer, but rather how to calm those around her as they adjust to the news. Perhaps this is how Amber has learned about grace, gaining strength by remaining supple and swaying rather than breaking under the weight of life’s unexpected blessings. • Read more at ambermcreeturner.com

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