Style and Grace: Salon Owner Overcomes Breast Cancer
May 19, 2023 Nicole Levine
Amber Lesse is an expert hair stylist with more than a decade and a half of experience creating beautiful, fashionable cuts and colors. She vividly remembers the moment when she realized she needed the haircut that nobody wants.
As she ran her hands through her hair that she’d recently cropped into a pink pixie cut, her locks fell out in clumps. She’d been expecting it. Amber, then 35, just finished her second round of the chemotherapy treatment breast cancer patients often call the “Red Devil” for its cherry-cough-syrup color and its sometimes-brutal side effects. Amber sent her husband, Danny, down to her business, Amber Holistic Hair Studio in Mar Vista, to pick up her clippers.
“I thought back to the clients who have called me and said they’ve been diagnosed with cancer and asked if I could come over to their house and shave their heads, and of course I would,” she says. “I felt so deeply for them, and now it was my turn.”
“It was the most freeing moment of this whole process, which was so bizarre. And it was beautiful. I rinsed all the hair off, and my head became this therapeutic thing. Whenever I was in pain or uncomfortable, I would just rub my head.”
When her husband returned with the clippers, Amber played Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whatta Man” while he shaved off her pink locks.
“It was the most freeing moment of this whole process, which was so bizarre,” she says. “And it was beautiful. I rinsed all the hair off, and my head became this therapeutic thing. Whenever I was in pain or uncomfortable, I would just rub my head.”
Amber was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2021, just one day after realizing her dream of opening her own salon. Over the next year, she would undergo treatment and build her business while coping with the COVID-19 pandemic surge. Breast cancer among women in their 30s is rare, affecting 1 in 204 women according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), compared to 1 in 65 women in their 40s, 1 in 42 in their 50s and 1 in 28 in their 60s.
“When breast cancer appears in younger women, it can be more aggressive,” says Philomena McAndrew, MD, an oncologist at Tower Hematology Oncology. “It’s important for all women to know their bodies and pay attention when they suspect something is wrong.”
Taking control of her care
In October 2021, Amber was finishing work on her salon and recovering from being rear-ended on the 405 freeway. Her chest was still sore from the collision several days after it happened. While feeling around the area to inspect for potential injuries, she found a lump in her right breast near her armpit.
She turned to the managed care consortium where she usually saw her primary care doctor, and they ordered an ultrasound.
“Because of the pandemic, patients weren’t getting all of the tests they needed, and that room was full of women waiting for diagnostic testing,” Amber says. “I waited a week for a test.”
In fact, the NCI estimates 9.4 million cancer screening tests were missed in 2020 in the U.S.
Amber eventually received a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy that found invasive ductal carcinoma. She changed her health insurance and interviewed several doctors around Los Angeles. She chose Armando Giuliano, MD, co-director of Cedars-Sinai’s Saul and Joyce Brandman Breast Center—A Project of Women’s Guild.
“It was so scary knowing that I was living with cancer in my body,” Amber says. “Dr. Giuliano was incredibly knowledgeable and caring, and he got me right in.”
On Jan. 11, 2022—just two days before her 35th birthday—Amber said goodbye to her cancer. That’s how she describes her double mastectomy, which was recommended because she had cancer so young and has a significant family history of the disease.
Amber started chemotherapy with Dr. McAndrew, undergoing infusions every other week for 16 weeks, followed by 30 rounds of radiation therapy. Her family lives out of state, but they came to visit her in two-week stretches.
“When I was going through chemotherapy, I was so incredibly sick I felt like I lived on my couch,” Amber says. “I couldn’t watch TV or even read.”
This was tough for a driven entrepreneur with a new business. Amber envisioned a salon that used organic, nontoxic products in a serene environment. She didn’t just want to hire employees or rent stations—she wanted to foster careers. The timing of her diagnosis, just one day after opening her doors, made those plans difficult.
“All of the friends I’ve worked with at other salons in Los Angeles stepped up,” she said. “They said they were joining my business, and they rented stations from me. They even switched over to clean color and clean products.”
Her network also connected her with a bookkeeper when she realized managing the business finances on her own was too much.
“Chemo brain is a thing,” she says. “I always prided myself on being an independent woman who could do anything. Then I was hit with cancer, and it’s humbling. Most people who start a business expect to be there to drive it to a self-sustaining and profitable point, but my staff stepped up. They trusted me and supported me.”
Advocating for herself
Amber’s single most important piece of advice for someone experiencing breast cancer or any serious illness: Be your own best advocate.
“There are no stupid questions when you’re dealing with your health,” she says. “If you feel it’s overwhelming or emotionally taxing to ask your questions, bring someone to your appointments who will be in your corner and fight for you.”
Living through breast cancer only bolstered Amber’s drive to combine her salon dreams with finding ways to help people.
“After my diagnosis, it was even more important that I launch the salon and create a safe environment for all,” she says. “In some ways, this diagnosis put my life—and my life’s work—into perspective.”
Amber collaborated with a friend who has a skin care line to create a product they dubbed Boobie Ritual, a blend of oils intended to make monthly breast self-exams a pampering, self-care experience. Amber Holistic Salon is thriving. She is planning to expand her business in space and scope, with nail and skincare services.
Amber’s family is also expanding: She and Danny are planning on having a baby with the help of a childhood best friend who agreed to be her surrogate while she continues taking her cancer medications.
She also continues to reach out to other women who have cancer, especially when the time comes for them to cut their hair.
“It’s an empowering moment,” she says. “I feel like I’m pretty good at toning down stressful situations and eventually turning them into gold. Not everyone handles things that way, and I’m happy to help when I can.”