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.

DOOMED – Marilyn Armstrong

Weekly Word Prompt: ATM Germs


We are doomed.

Yesterday — or was it the day before? — we got our super flu shots. These are hyped up uber-potent shots they give to us older folks because we are more likely to get sick than younger people. Also, we are more likely to die from the flu because we have other issues — asthma, blood pressure, and heart problems. Sinus problems. Stomach problems. Fibromyalgia. MS. Cancer.

In fact, I don’t know why we don’t just die and give the world a break. Sheesh.

Discovering that in addition to the usual distributors of disease — other people, especially very young people — we can now worry about everything we touch including the ATM machine.

Don’t forget your flu shot …

Really? As if the handles on the shopping cart and whatever my granddaughter has on her clothing isn’t bad enough, now I have to stress over ATM machines? Not that I actually use the ATM machine. I won’t make a deposit without going to an actual person in the bank. I want a paper receipt.

Call me crazy, but once, a long time ago in a bank since absorbed by some larger bank — probably by now it’s all Bank of America — they lost a deposit I put through in an envelope that included an official deposit slip.

It got straightened out but left me with a firm belief for any deposit made by check or cash I want a written, signed piece of paper from a person.

We are doomed. No matter how hard we try, something will get us.

We don’t go out much. When we do, we usually get sick. It’s like the slow cars that pull out in front of us while we are driving. I’m sure these cars are told when to appear by drones from the super-slow drivers’ department. Meanwhile, somewhere in the air, there’s a germ-laden drone.


“Look! It’s the Armstrongs! Prepare to disperse germs!”

Mostly, Garry and I have been exhausted. All the time. For me, this typically means fibromyalgia. Garry had surgery in July and I have a feeling that this might have triggered the same thing for him. Women are more typically fibromyalgia victims, but men are not excluded.

Then again, maybe we aren’t sick at all. Maybe we just aren’t getting enough sleep. The weather has been like hot soup with interludes of rain.  Duke is shedding like a small furry hurricane. Our sinuses and eyes don’t like the ragweed and Garry is getting used to carrying around a lot of electronics inside his head.

So maybe it’s all allergies and getting even older.

When we went for our flu shots, they always ask if you think you might be sick. At our age, that’s not an easy question to answer. Maybe we are fine or as fine as we ever are. But, maybe we aren’t fine.

Am I exhausted from all the running around to doctors and hospitals or because I’m coming down with something? Am I recovering from the major house cleaning last week? Or am I worn out because our dogs are faster, friskier, and more impassioned about balls that squeak than I could ever be?

Don’t you wish you could get that enthusiastic about a big green tennis ball that squeaks? Don’t you wish you could bite something hard enough to make it squeak?

COMPREHENSIVELY NOT FEELING WELL – Marilyn Armstrong

I woke up this morning to an angina attack. This is just one of those things. It hurts like a full-on heart attack, but you take medicine and three minutes later it goes away, leaving you feeling like you got run over by a truck.

What causes it? Excessive tiredness is one thing and I’ve been really tired lately. But also — and very specifically — aspirin and any other NSAID.

In this highly pollen-laden weather, I’ve had a headache that won’t quit. Pretty much the only thing that works is Excedrin and sometimes, coffee.

I’m not supposed to take anything with aspirin in it and definitely not Excedrin. Although I’m usually diligent about medication, a really bad headache is one of those things I can’t ignore. And sinus/hay fever headaches are ugly and long-lasting.

Hence, Excedrin.

And this morning, I paid the price.

Point taken.

I can sneak in a couple of Excedrin once in a while, but I can’t take it daily and I certainly can’t take it more than once a day.

Speaking of allergies, I know that allergies are not illnesses. I get that. Just because you feel like hell, you aren’t officially “sick.” But allergies are worse than (for example) a cold. You get a cold, it hangs around a few days then goes away. You get into allergy season and you are comprehensively miserable in every possible way until the pollen finally leaves for the winter … and you know you’re going to go through it again come spring. Different pollen, but around here, the pollen is so heavy it looks like green snow is falling.

The dogs sneeze too. Red eyes all around. We are all miserable and I’m maxed out on allergy pills.

So I didn’t write anything this morning. Garry brought me some coffee and a muffin. Then, I went back to sleep for a few hours. Now, I’m feeling nearly human, but there’s a headache, back for round who-knows-what. Only this time, I can’t take anything.

In all of the years of headaches, the only medication that has ever actually worked is Excedrin or one of its generic clones.

Ironic isn’t it? I have a dozen prescriptions — and not one of them will make that pollen-generated headache go away.

FOWC with Fandango — Comprehensive

THE ALLURE OF THE UNKNOWN – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Unknown


I got a note from a reader about an article I wrote more than five years ago about blood types. I’m a B+ from an O+ mother and an AB+ father, which cannot, in theory, produce me. But it did and there’s no doubt who my parents were.

It turns out that unexpected blood types just sometimes “pop up.” Why?


Unknown.

There is more we don’t know about blood types and where they come from than we do know. The article is titled: DESCENDING FROM THE GOLDEN HORDE – B+ AND ME  and it is the most popular article I ever wrote. Especially since I wrote it more than five years ago and it’s still widely read today.

I got a letter yesterday from what turns out to be a first cousin. Or is it second cousin? I’ve never worked out the first, second, third and how many times removed thing in familial relationships. Regardless, she’s a pretty close match and is the great-granddaughter of my grandfather’s sister. This came with pictures and everything and damned if we don’t all pretty much look alike. Not exactly the same, but similar enough to form a congenial family portrait.

I didn’t even know this branch of the family existed. If my mother knew, she never mentioned it. I never knew my grandparents. They died when I was too young to know anything except how to walk. When you don’t know your grandparents, you lose a lot of history.


Unknown.

The older I get, the more I realize how little I know. The more I learn, the more yawning the unknown gets, too.

Maybe that is why so many people enjoy ignorance. If you don’t know anything, you don’t need to recognize how much more you need to learn to lose your ignorance. No matter how much you know, you always need to know more.

Ignorance is so easy. You just assume what you know (or think you know) is everything there is to know. Then carefully avoid learning more. If anyone intrudes on your ignorance, you can run screaming with your ears covered lest your lack of knowledge be devastated by the intrusion of previously unknown information.

Meanwhile, I have a whole unknown branch of my family branch to explore. Call me crazy, but I find the unknown the most alluring part of my universe.

Send down the Mother Ship! I’ve got my bags packed.

THE LONG ROAD

Recovery, by Rich Paschall

Bill was to report to County Hospital at 10 AM so he had to hustle through his morning routine, if you could call it that.  He slept until the sun woke him up, so he barely had an hour to wash his face, shave, get dressed, make coffee and leave the house.  In his usual haphazard fashion, Bill accomplished his tasks on time.

From the kitchen window he spied clouds that might roll in from the west, but nothing could erase the shine from this day. A goal had been met and Bill would have the honor of walking the winner across the finish line.  But despite his bright attitude, Bill grabbed for the large golf umbrella on the way out the door.  No, Bill did not play golf.  He just never knew when there might be a need for such a large umbrella.

Clouds rolling in

Everyone seemed to know Bill when he arrived at the hospital.  He had been making regular visits there for months, and chatting up the nurses and interns along the way.  Now he only had time to smile and wave as he made his way to the fifth floor.

In room 502 a nurse was assisting the patient in getting ready to leave the rehabilitation floor to head home.  Slowly he dressed, needing some help from others as he went.  When he was all set, the nurse helped him to stand, and after a minute on his feet, to sit in the wheelchair.  His personal items were stuffed into two plastic bags marked “Patient Belongings” and a small plastic tub, which was used a few times for washing up, was filled with a small half used tube of toothpaste, a cheap toothbrush, a small unopened shampoo bottle, a half bottle of mouthwash and some hand lotion.

The patient, a retired Industrial Planner from the Midwest, had arrived rather unceremoniously  three months earlier.  Paramedics brought him in after collecting him from the floor of his screened in patio.  A neighbor had spotted him and another neighbor arrived with his first name.  A medical investigator actually discovered his last name by visiting the home where he was found and looking on the mailbox.

Now the entire staff on the fifth floor of County Hospital knew Harold.  Although he said very little due to his condition, nurses and therapists liked to stop in to have a little chat.  For the first month, Harold could say nothing in return.  As time progressed, he began to react more to the comments with a nod, a smile, or even a word or two.

He had spent the first week at County down stairs in ICU.  For the second week he did little but lay in bed in 502.  Sometimes someone would turn on the television, but it was doubtful Harold was aware of it most of the time.  After that, the plan was put in motion.  It was not the plan of the supreme Planner, but one on which the rest of his life depended.

It took many helpers to carry out the plan for Harold.  A physical therapist was brought in to get Harold back into motion.  He worked his arms and legs and soon began to prompt the patient on which action to make.  When he was quite ready, the therapist would take him to the activity room where Harold would sit and roll a large ball across the room to the therapist who would roll it back.  After that there was standing and walking.  By the third month, Harold moved to the stairs.  It was a narrow set of three with railings on both sides to grab.  He went up to the top, then down the other side.

As movement improved, Harold was taken to a room set up like a kitchen.  There he would practice opening jars and bottles and sometimes even cans.  It was a struggle.  In the third month he would prepare his own lunch.  It was soft foods which he sometimes could not eat.

From week three a therapist came to teach swallowing.  Weeks of exercises lead to attempt at swallowing thick liquids.  Water and coffee were no good unless thickener was added.  Harold looked at the therapist with a bit of disdain every time she poured thickener into a good cup of coffee.  In truth, he could barely swallow the liquids when his time at County was up.

Another therapist worked on speech.  Harold found it strange that someone must teach him how to shape his mouth and exercise his throat for sounds in order to say words again.  It was not perfect after three months, but at least he could speak and be understood.

The long road home

Bill arrived in 502 with all of the enthusiasm of a relative welcoming someone back from the dead.  His smile was even larger than the patient’s, who still was working on his facial muscles and reactions.

“Ready to break out of here?” Bill said with a laugh.

Harold nodded slowly.  He actually was not sure he was ready, but he was certainly glad to be going home.

“OK then, I guess we will just roll you out of here, since they will not allow you to race through the halls,” Bill blurted out, amused with himself.

A member of the hospital staff rolled the patient to the front door and Bill pulled his car right up to the front.  They both had to help Harold get into the car, as his range of motion was limited.

The hospital worker handed into Harold a cane, the kind with four feet on the bottom.  “I guess you will be needing this for a while.”  With that, the two retirees drove away.

Leaving the hospital was not the end of the journey for Harold.  It only took him part way down the long road.

 

 

 

STARTING OVER – A NEW EPISODE FOR HAROLD – Rich Paschall

Finally, A Plan For The Planner, by Rich Paschall

Bill woke up refreshed on another warm and pleasant Florida morning.  As he lie awake staring at the window shades, he wondered what time it could possibly be.  In retirement, Bill did not worry about such things as alarm clocks.  Yes, he had one just in case he needed it, but he tried never to set it.  This Monday, however, Bill did have something he wished to do.  So he decided to get up and start his week.

72-Dana-Farber_058

Not far away, at the county hospital, Harold was barely conscious.  He had been transferred from Intensive Care to a regular hospital room.  It was a trip from one bland room to another, although the current room did not contain so many machines humming and whirring, not that any of the noise was noticed by the recovering retiree.

The previous Monday Harold was brought to the emergency room.  He had a stroke on Monday, or perhaps even the day before, no one knows for sure.  Harold was not talking and they could only make a guess.  The paramedics told a neighbor it did not seem to be a long time, but they were not sure.

Bill, and nosey Mabel Crockett, were the only neighbors who knew where Harold had gone.  Neither knew of any of Harold’s friends or relatives, so Harold had to lie for a week in Intensive Care while Bill tried in vain to get news.  Now he could finally go and see his retirement friend.

In truth, Harold was not in much better shape, but since he had moved to a regular room, he was allowed visitors.  As no one had been notified, there was no one to visit Harold until now.  Even though Harold had been a master planner in his profession, he had never planned for a life event of this magnitude.  As a result, his future was in the hands of strangers to whom he could not communicate.

When Bill had finished his morning routine, including a light breakfast, he prepared for a trip to the hospital to see Harold.  All through the previous week, Bill had tried to see Harold and was turned away on every occasion.  He was not a relative and since there was no medical power of attorney or permissions granted, no one besides the medical staff could see old Harold.

At the moment Bill was ready to give up on Harold the previous week, a hospital volunteer slipped him the word the Harold had improved and would earn his way to a regular room.  Now Bill was ready to go find out if Harold could tell him anything about friends or relatives.  Just who should be notified.

Heading to the medical center
Heading to the medical center

Bill drove through the light traffic to the county hospital and parked in the multi-level parking garage.  It seemed that all of the spaces on the first two levels were reserved for staff or the handicapped so Bill drove up and parked near the elevator.  He rode down, walked across the roadway that lead to the Emergency Room, and entered the hospital.

The same receptionist who Bill saw everyday the previous week was on duty, but this time she was able to give him some information and a room pass.

“Good morning,” she said upon seeing Bill.  “You will want to go to the fifth floor and when you get off the elevator, go right and down to room 502.”  At that she handed Bill a room pass and instructed him to return it when he came down.

“Hello,” Bill said with a smile when he was finally able to jump in.  “Thanks,” he continued as he took the pass and headed to the room.  Oddly enough, no one ever asked to see the pass that Bill stuck in his pocket.

Dana Farber lobby

When Bill arrived at the room he discovered a whole group of medical people around Harold’s bed.  They seemed to be discussing their plan of recovery for Harold.  They all spoke as if Harold was not even in the room.

“He’s already been here a week and there is only slight improvement in motor skills,” one doctor announced to the gathering.

“We believe his cognitive skills will return to full capacity,” another doctor chimed in, “but only time will tell for sure.”

A nurse stated that Harold was being fed by a tube in the stomach because he was incapable of eating.  The brown liquid in the bag hanging overhead would have to do for a while.

As the discussion of Harold’s condition, both good and bad, continued, Bill asked the nurse if he could see her in the hall.  “Can Harold hear what all of you are saying?”

The nurse explained that Harold might be able to hear but perhaps he could not follow along too well because of the medication.  “Then don’t you think we should be careful what we say about his recovery?” Bill wanted to know, trying to make a point she did not understand.

“Yes,” the nurse replied in a cheery voice, “please be careful what you say.”  A frustrated Bill walked back into the room where the discussion of Harold’s condition continued.

A physical therapist discussed rehabilitation plans.  This was followed by a speech therapist.  She not only spoke of the relearning to talk, she also discussed the work that would be necessary to teach swallowing.  This act that we all take for granted would have to be relearned following the paralyzing effect on one side of the body.

An occupational therapist was the next to speak.  There would be a need to practice typical household chores, such as reaching for cans and bottles and opening them, preparing food, and doing everyday tasks.

All of the therapists and doctors announced a schedule they would follow each week.  They discussed a timetable for success and how much they had hoped to accomplish in an optimal situation.  As they left the room, Bill tried frantically to ask how long this would take and if Harold would fully recover.

As that was taking place, a slight smile appeared on Harold’s face.  The Midwest planner was pleased at the extensive day-to-day plan they had laid out for him.

Note: One more “Harold story” arrives on Sunday.
Previously:  “Missing Monday,” “Sunshine, Spring Training, and Survival,” “Wednesday Wondering,” “Waiting For The Story To Continue,” “A Tap On The Shoulder

A TAP ON THE SHOULDER

When Hope Pays a Visit, Rich Paschall

Bill woke with the Florida sun proclaiming the new day, as he did on most days. He did not set an alarm clock, it was against his retirement protocol. Instead, he waited for the room to brighten with the energy of a new morning.

A new morning
A new morning

As he wandered through his house, getting ready to meet the world, Bill thought of what he would do that Friday. It seems he had been on a futile mission all week. Nevertheless, he would try again, and give it just one more chance. It felt like the least he could do for his friend.

Bill’s morning routine could not exactly be described as a routine.  Rather it was haphazard at best. He went to the washroom. He went to the closet. He went to the kitchen to start coffee. He went back to the washroom to shave. He looked again in the closet for what to wear and he went back to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. It took him over an hour to get ready to start the day, but that was Bill’s retirement plan. In other words, there was no plan.

His neighbor Harold, on the other hand, always had a plan. His time seemed to be allocated to the minute. While Bill liked Harold, he was not fond of the rigid lifestyle. That was no way to retire, Bill thought. Of course, it all did not matter now.

At the beginning of the week, Harold was found lying on his screened in patio and carted off to the local hospital, just a short distance away. It was not unusual for the Emergency Medical Technicians to pick up old timers in this part of Sarasota County, but it was still a shock to the few who knew Harold. Bill was one of those few.

Although a daily purpose was never part of Bill’s retirement goals, he nonetheless scheduled himself into a visit to the county hospital every day in a vain attempt to learn something, anything, about Harold’s condition. He was not immediate family and he was not named on any medical documents, since Harold, Planner Supreme, had no plan for this life-altering event. So Bill had learned nothing all week-long. Still, he could not settle his mind over the thought of Harold just falling over on his patio. So he kept trying to get a medical update.

When coffee was gone and toast was eaten, Bill was ready to make the trip to the county hospital. He stepped out into the Florida sun to find the day was already hot and humid.  Neighbor Mabel Crockett, would tell anyone who would listen that “the air was so think you could cut it with a knife.”  And so it was exactly that.

Bill hopped into his car in the driveway of his townhouse and hoped that the air conditioner would be at work right away. He was a bit disappointed at that, but he did not have far to go.

He arrived at the parking lot that was just two dollars for patients and visitors for four hours. “Don’t forget to have your ticket validated,” the guard warned Bill. If he forgot, the charge was double. Bill did not seem to care too much about that.

He entered by the Emergency Room and walked past the Trauma Triage and down the hall to the main lobby area. There he walked right up to the same receptionist who greeted him every day that week.

“Yes?” the elderly receptionist said with a sigh. She recalled Bill immediately and was prepared to go through the routine again.

“I am here to see my friend Harold. He came in through Emergency on Monday.”

“I know,” she said with a tired sound. It is the same sound that came with all of the disappointing statements she must give to visitors. “I’m sorry,” she continued. “Your friend is in intensive care. I can not give out information to anyone but immediate family.”

Bill started with his usual response, “But I might be…”

“I know, sir, and I am very sorry. It is the regulation and there is nothing else I can say,” the grey haired woman proclaimed with a heavy dose of sadness.

They stared at each other for a moment when Bill finally conceded. “I understand,” he said with a bit of a choked up sound. He could understand the rule, just not the dogmatic enforcement in this circumstance.

Bill started back down the hall toward the exit by the Emergency room. He passed pictures of important donors, including the Ringling Family of Circus fame. There were also paintings of peaceful ocean scenes that would seem to go with the best rooms at a Holiday Inn. Bill noticed none of it all week-long.  He just knew how long the walk would take to the exit.

As he got half way down the hall, Bill felt a tap on his shoulder.  “Excuse me,” a voice announced. “Excuse me, sir.”

Bill turned around to find the elderly receptionist right behind him.  She seemed a bit out of breath, probably from her pursuit of Bill.

“I am not supposed to say anything,” she said softly, as if she was telling a big secret, “but what are they going to do?  Fire me?  I am a volunteer.” At that, Bill saw her first smile of the week.

“Your friend is doing better,” she stated, “And they should move him out of Intensive Care soon, maybe tomorrow.”

Bill grabbed the old woman and gave her a big hug. Tears formed in his eyes as he told the receptionist, “Thank you so much!”  This was followed by another big hug.

So Bill thanked some woman he didn’t know for some news about a neighbor he hardly knew. The news itself really wasn’t anything at all, but it made Bill’s day complete.

Note: The next “Harold story” appears Friday.
Previously:  “Missing Monday,” “Sunshine, Spring Training and Survival,” “Wednesday Wondering,” “Waiting For The Story To Continue.”