EIGHT YEARS AND STILL IN REMISSION (YAY) – Marilyn Armstrong

Eight years ago today I had a bilateral mastectomy for cancer. I had malignant tumors in both breasts. Two different kinds of cancer. Which, I was told, is extremely rare. One in a million.

I’m always that one in a million.

The much better news was that both tumors were small and non-aggressive, as cancer goes. I also had the wits to find the best cancer doctor in Boston and the only plastic surgeon who was sure she could manage to create breasts for me. I’d had five (six?) previous abdominal surgeries, so there wasn’t any undamaged skin for her to work with … so she literally salvaged the skin from my breasts and reused it over the implants.

Recently – Photo: Garry Armstrong

I had four surgeons working on me at the same time because there were two breasts to be removed, followed by two “new ones” to be implanted. I was a total mess when I came out of surgery … but I had breasts. I didn’t have to go through the horrible stage where suddenly, you’re a woman with no breasts. I remember how much my mother hated losing first one, then the other breast. How they made her feel “unwomanly.”

It’s a surgery that changes you.

Mind you I had been told conclusively by at least three previous plastic surgeons that it was impossible. It couldn’t be done. That was when a friend (a doctor type friend) stepped in and introduced me to the good surgeons. The head honcho and her lead plastic surgeon. So I got them and their top assistants because they didn’t want to extend the surgery any longer than necessary and this way, they could work on both sides of me at the same time.

And that’s what they did.

That surgery changed me in a lot of ways I haven’t even begun to address despite the eight years that have passed. The heart surgery — a mere three years later — didn’t change me as much as losing both breasts.

It’s hard to explain how important breasts are to a woman. It doesn’t make any logical sense. Unless you are nursing — and I was way past the nursing phase of my life — they are secondary sexual characteristics. Yet from early on, one’s breasts define femininity. Size, shape, all of that stuff. The fake ones look more or less normal under clothing … but they don’t feel real.

Also, I have no nipples. I could have gotten pretend nipples, but it would have involved more surgery and more weeks of recovery. I realized fake nipples weren’t going to make me feel more female. They would feel as fake as the implanted breasts.

Make no mistake: I’m glad to have the fake breasts. I can look in the mirror and see a woman even though she has significant replacement parts.

I have to wonder about women who have breast surgery for “cosmetic” purposes. This is serious surgery. To do it voluntarily?

So, eight years later, I’m alive. My body changed enormously after that surgery. I went from being extremely thin to quite plump, probably because of the drugs they kept giving me to suppress production of estrogen. The drugs made me terribly sick and eventually, the oncologist suggested I stop taking them, that they were making me miserable and I had no quality of life left. I asked what percentage of difference not taking the drugs would make … and he said “less than 10%.”

I stopped taking them.

I still wonder if those drugs had something to do with how my heart disintegrated immediately thereafter. I can’t prove it, but still … those were some powerful drugs.

Climb every mountain – Photo: Ben Taylor

Meanwhile, it is eight years and there’s no sign of anything (new) wrong. It doesn’t mean I can’t get cancer somewhere else, mind you. It just takes one random floating cell to take root somewhere, but so far, so good.

Where cancer is concerned, that’s as good as any of us can ever say. You are never cured … just remitted. For now.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. Retired! Yay!

47 thoughts on “EIGHT YEARS AND STILL IN REMISSION (YAY) – Marilyn Armstrong”

  1. And you are really looking good. It seems this cancer thing is sort of hereditary. I had an examination but everything OK. On my mothers side there was a bit of bowel cancer, but dad‘s family never had any problems. We can only hope and I am so glad that you came through it all, even with a few new body parts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. wow, what a compelling survival story! Congrats to you and even more to your couragous, brave and skilled surgeons…. AND yes, this calls for a small celebration. What about eating at that lovely beautiful train wagon restaurant with the great food and the fantastic atmosphere!? Go crazy, you both deserve it so much! 🙂 Bon appétit

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A lot depends on what kind of cancer you have …. and how quickly they find it. They didn’t find mine quickly at all … but it was slow-growing and not terribly aggressive. Every case is a little different, but if you make it through 5 years, you start to breathe easier.

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  3. Congrats on survival. My sister is a survivor. She had one mastectomy. End of month I’ll have bilateral excision biopsies. They do not expect to find cancer but the abnormality must be removed because cancer loves these areas. I for one, think i would be happy to have them both chopped off. I have had pain for decades. And the worry. But yet… it easier to say then to have done. Congrats again.

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    1. You always hear how “cancer is painless.” Mine was NOT painless. It hurt a lot and that’s what got me to the doctor and the biopsies and ultimately, surgery. The most important thing? Savvy doctors who understand women and breasts and know how to do the surgery without mutilating you. I had had a cyst in the area that turned out to be cancer for many years and no one paid attention to it until one day it was obviously NOT a cyst. So taking care of yourself is smart. And you’ll probably get a more satisfactory result, too.

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      1. That was the kind of cancer my sister had. A cyst that filled up a second time and doc said got to get it out. “There is a very small chance it is cancerous”. She took it out and the doc was shocked when it came back cancer. The cyst had totally wrapped around it and no Mamo or ultrasound detected it. So if there’s a chance in mine… it’s coming out.

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    1. I always love the memes on Facebook where they say “survivors don’t care about ‘thing’ like cars and money.”

      Yes, really we do. We care a LOT and could use — just like everyone else — new cars, enough money to fix the house. We aren’t just wishing on stars. We are real live people and we need all the same stuff everyone else needs.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Congratulations. You have another book in you yet, in my opinion. The last one was remarkable and a great read, however, you need to continue your amazing story and include these kinds of anecdotes in it. Just my opinion. So far (knock wood) I’ve avoided any cancer – my father had it and died (but his was not a genetic kind, rather an environmental kind); my maternal aunt has had breast cancer (but she’s very old and very evil and to me who looks at things oddly) she got what she had coming. Me? I’m in a ‘high risk’ group for both cervical and breast cancer due to the fact that I never had any children AND I have a maternal relative who had breast cancer. If it’s to be, it’s to be. I AM most interested in your description of how it made you FEEL though..vis a vis your womanhood. I’ve heard that from other breast cancer survivors (remission-ees perhaps?) We do identify with our breasts, it’s integral somehow. Thank you for sharing your great news! 🙂

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      1. Yes, I had a 35 year old friend who died from cervical cancer. She left behind two under age 10 children too. And oddly (coincidentally) her cancer remissed for several years, but when it came back, it CAME BACK and it killed her. So sad. I’m pretty vigilant about the ‘girls’, but that whole pap smear business (which, as you said, doesn’t catch the cervical problem anyway..well not until too late) is rather behind. I need to get on that..

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  5. I can’t imagine the psychological changes that must and would take place. Your such an incredible woman! You’ve been through so much and you stand strong tall and straight for what’s right for love for truth. You’ve been to hell and back and I can’t say enough about your inner strength and the determination and fight within to keep going and never give up! You rock!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Happy anniversary and being healthy. Definitely a tough journey of treatment, and I am glad that your oncologist was able to recognize when the treatment was worse than the disease or possibility of disease. Be well.

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    1. For me, I really AM well. Anemic, as it turns out, but I’ve been anemic off and on since I was a kid, but I have problems processing vitamins. So I’ll take them for a while, then they’ll retest me and I’ll stop … but that’s why I’m always so pale. On the positive side, thin blood. Easy pumping, right?

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        1. I have issues, but given all the stuff I’ve been through, who wouldn’t? I manage. The really hard one to deal with is my back and the broken sternum (from the heart surgery) that simply won’t heal. It’s the calcified bones and broken chest that bothers me. The rest of it? I can deal with it well enough, but the broken stuff isn’t so easy to manage.

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            1. It’s particularly frustrating because there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s really the cartilage that refuses to heal and that’s probably age-related. On a bad day, I can hear a clunk with each breath.

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  7. I’m so happy to hear that you’ve been in remission for 8 years. That’s encouraging. My first chemo treatment was a week ago. Stage IV, aggressive HER2 positive cells.

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