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?

HOW ARE YOUR YEARS? – Marilyn Armstrong

When I was in college, two of the women with whom I became friends were suicides. Neither of them was happy, but I would never have guessed either of them was suicidal.

One of them was just 19 when she killed herself. The other was 21.

I have never assumed “everything is fine” for anyone. Even when you ask, you will only know what you are told and that is rarely the whole truth. People are secretive about their deepest fears and thoughts.

“How are you?”

“Everything is fine.”

“You don’t sound fine.”

“No, really. I’m fine.”

How many times do you ask before you realize you aren’t going to find out anything more? When people mention that aging makes them “think about mortality” I realize I began thinking about mortality when Karin died and then again when Anna jumped. Also when a young couple, just married, crashed their car into a truck and died on the highway.

Yet again, when my first husband got kidney cancer at 34 and lived, but still died young of heart disease and medical errors. Then my brother died of pancreatic cancer at 61. One of Garry’s colleagues — in her early 40s — died while waiting for a bus in Cambridge. When my first husband’s father died of his second heart attack at 52, I was pregnant and sorry he never met his grandson. For that matter, Jeff died at 53 and never met his granddaughter.

I knew a young person who died of a heart attack before age 21. Another internet friend, Rosa, died a month ago of a heart attack. I only found out yesterday when her mother called. She wasn’t yet 35.

And of course, there are all the friends our age who are battling cancer, dementia, heart conditions, not to mention the ones who have “beaten” cancer, but of course, you never really beat cancer. You are remitted and that will have to do.

When people complain about not being as active as they were when they were many years younger, I think they are missing the point. Age will have its way. How it hits you is partly a matter of how you used your body and your personal DNA. Depending on your constitution, your ability to walk, run, ride, or whatever you do may be compromised. Even eliminated.

But then again … are you breathing on your own? Do you get out of bed in the morning, even if it is a struggle? Do you find joy in your life? Do you laugh? Are there people you love who love you too? Is life interesting? Are you still curious to know what’s going to happen?

If any of these things are true, yay for you. You are alive.

Mortality is always with us, whether we are old or young. We may not be paying attention to it, or we may be under some delusion that we are exempt from “the end” because we exercise and eat right. But there will be an end.

Maybe, as Jeff used it say, it’ll be a runaway beer truck. Or something unexpectedly medical. It may be tomorrow or in 60 years. Whatever time you have, be gracious and grateful. Many people don’t get a life full of years. Others get the years and manage to be miserable through all of it.

Enjoy your years, however many you have.

INGENUITY: ARGUING FINANCE WHEN MONEY IS GONE – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Ingenuity

Today or maybe tomorrow if I have the energy, I have to try to explain to UMass that if Blue Cross says I don’t owe money, I don’t owe the money. That is the theory and supposedly, that’s the legal way it works. If I know this is the law, I’m pretty sure so does UMass.

They are not allowed to “charge the balance” to us. When you are on Medicare, all that “leftover money” is a write-off. I know it makes hospitals unhappy, but that is how it works.

This will be an amazing trick of ingenuity and I’m not sure I have the strength of character to do it today.

In fact, I’m sure I don’t.

Tomorrow.

I’m too tired now.

PEEING IN THE STREETS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I’ve been reading about an urban problem that I thought was solved with the invention of the indoor toilet. Apparently, Paris is so plagued by men peeing in the streets, that they have taken action to mitigate the worst effects of this phenomenon.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, people emptied bedpans out their windows onto the streets below. Then indoor plumbing made this practice obsolete. So walking on the street became less dangerous and unpredictable, But it seems that even today, men don’t accept the concept of exclusively indoor, bathroom urinating. They still want to relieve themselves wherever and whenever they want. Including on public streets.

This public peeing creates two separate problems, affecting two of the senses. First, there’s the problem of odors permeating public streets, often in upscale and tourist neighborhoods. Then there’s the visual assault of people having to watch men peeing in public.

The City Council of Paris has addressed the problem. Their solution was to install urinals around Paris to discourage pedestrians from relieving themselves randomly on the streets of the city.

Enter the ‘Uritrottoir’, or sidewalk urinal. It’s bright red, is free-standing and open on all sides. It’s filled with straw and uses the nitrogen and other chemicals in the urine to produce organic compounds. This supposedly eliminates odors. That may at least solve the smell problem.

But Parisians are complaining that the open design of the urinals does not prevent passersby, including tourists on Seine cruises, from having to watch men relieving themselves. Sensitive Parisians also dislike the bold design and color of the urinals. They are considered an eyesore, particularly in historic and quaint areas.

Apparently, public urination has always been a problem, around the world. Some cities in Germany have come up with more creative ways to discourage public peeing. In Munich, there’s a walkway between the soccer stadium and the subway which suffers from a disproportionate amount of drunken peeing. So the city is looking to install a long strip of un-planted flower beds that would go over a giant tank. It would have bark chips in it to reduce odor so men could pee in it at will.

I like Hamburg’s solution better. Some locals in Hamburg have been coating the walls of buildings in ‘splash creating, urine retardant’ paint. This paint is used in ship hulls. What it does is coat the urinater in his own pee.

Poetic justice!

I don’t understand the psychology of men who do this. Women don’t have the option and they manage to hold it in until they find a bathroom. What is wrong with men? Do they feel entitled? Do they have no modesty or shame? Are parents remiss when they toilet train their sons? WTF!

I’m also appalled that this is a universal problem in 2018. I guess we are not as evolved as I hoped.

I didn’t need another reason to be grateful that I left the city and moved to the country. I guess the universe wanted me to feel particularly good about abandoning urban life.

I have to watch my dogs pee in the backyard, but that’s not an affront to civilization.

Men peeing on city streets is.

FIRST DAY: ACTIVATING THE COCHLEAR IMPLANT – Garry Armstrong

After 76 years, 4 months and 18 days of hearing impairment, aka deafness, I can HEAR in both ears. Sing Hallelujah. But hold the applause. We’re not home yet.

Right ear. This is where all the sound data is collected to be transmitted to the implant and then, the brain
I’m going to need a trim to my hair soon. It’s not easy finding my head and the magnets

I’m writing the morning after the cochlear implant parts were activated in my head. During activation,  I felt a little like “the creature” in “Young Frankenstein”.   We had a prelude where the audiologist carefully explained how to assemble the cochlear “accessories,”  how to place them on my head and in my ears. Marilyn was watching closely. Good thing because I was quietly panicking. I’ve never been good doing the simplest of assemblies. I’m very clumsy.

I was as anxious as a Red Sox mid-inning reliever.

After the tutorial, several dry runs, and increasing anxiety, all the parts were in place and activated.  All this came after lengthy audio tests to determine how loud my new ears should be.

I braced myself with everything in place.

The cochlear parts are for my right ear, the “bad ear” which gives me very little audio. I have a new hearing aid in my left ear, the “good ear” which is supposed to enhance the cochlear parts.

I’ll give you in my rookie wearer understanding. The devices you see entwined around my right ear collect audio signals and send them to a “transmitter” which, with magnets, sits on the side of my head. The transmitter sends those signals into my head,  to the “implant” which was inserted via surgery.  Okay so far?  Oh, and there are magnets in my head so the headpiece will stay in place. Magnets. In my head.

So far, so good.

I breathed loudly as everything was activated. The voices of Marilyn and the audio technician were very tinny.  I could hear Marilyn’s voice more clearly. She had more “body” in her words than the technician, who I could also hear clearly, but she has a thin, rather reedy voice. I tried to relax my body and let myself really hear what was being said.

Left side with the new hearing aid. Smaller than the old one. This part of the gear needs some work

Relaxation is key. All my life, I’ve physically strained to hear. Leaned forward to catch what people were saying.  It’s difficult and physically exhausting.

It’s been my norm for 76 years. Now, I had to try and change that life-long habit. I sat with my back to Marilyn and the technician to test how well I could hear without seeing the people talking and read their lips as I usually do.

Usually, I can’t hear Marilyn if I am not directly facing her. It’s produced years of frustration for both of us. I could hear, my back turned away, both Marilyn and the audiologist. (Insert applause here.)

Sort of “normal” Garry from the front. The backpack came with all the “stuff” packed into it including the implant gear, a backup set of that gear, all those tiny little tools you need for working with hearing aids, charger, a whole set of “foreign” plugs for when (ahem) we travel to far off places … and a drying to get the humidity out of the unit. A GREAT idea!

Still, the voices were tinny and they echoed. As I responded to questions,  my voice sounded clear, full of that crispness and authority that’s familiar to TV News viewers. (Insert laughter here). That my own voice sounded perfectly normal is a good sign. It means that my brain is recognizing my voice and turning it into “normal” sounds. Probably Marilyn’s voice will be next. Familiar voices become “normal” much faster than the rest of the world and some may never sound entirely normal.

I allowed myself a brief smile of satisfaction.  It was very brief because I was also hearing bells and whistles, like a train was approaching the station. It was bizarre. The audiologist nodded as I explained what I was hearing.

She said it was normal. That I probably would hear those noises for “some time” as I wore the cochlear parts in various situations. Reporter Garry wanted a time frame.  How long? No easy answer, but she said — in round figures — about three months.

We went over how I should adjust to using my new ears and the various parts, inside and outside of my head. My brain was swirling but, fortunately, Marilyn was absorbing the information. We made an appointment for an evaluation.  I thought a week might be too quick but now I’m glad because I have lots of questions.

During the drive home yesterday, I was able to talk to Marilyn with minimal “what’s?”   Call it an early triumph.

We were greeted by the boisterous barking of our three dogs.  Yes, they were very loud.  Their yaps and growls were “enhanced” with echoes.

As we crashed, relaxed, and wolfed down late lunch sandwiches, I flipped on the television to baseball. The announcers sounded tinny with accompanying echoes. Their commentary was hard to understand. They were blasted by the crowd cheers.

I lowered the TV volume and things improved.  But I still heard echoes, bells, and whistles and the occasional chime mixed in with everything else.  Marilyn talking. Dogs barking.

I tried to mentally adjust. Slow down my intake of what Marilyn was saying.

That helped.  I’m so used to responding without really hearing. It’s a whole new ball game. As late afternoon turned into evening, I became more comfortable but I could not get rid of the echoes, bells and whistles.  Sometimes it also sounded like church bells tolling. For whom were they tolling?

There was one constant amid all the extra sounds. I could hear Marilyn’s words — not just muffled sounds.  Yes, there were a few “what did you say” moments, but a small number compared to life before the cochlear implant activation.

Marilyn took care of unloading my new backpack, filled with all the cochlear accessories, manuals, batteries.  She setup the battery charges and patiently walked me through everything.  Frankly, I had lost patience after the “first day”.  The echoes, bells and whistles had worn me down. I had an Excedrin Plus headache.  Marilyn seemed more pleased than me. I was excited about the events but physically drained — as was Marilyn who had to make sure we handled the cochlear parts correctly.

Looks like an odd version of a “smart” phone, doesn’t it?

We’re into day two. Against my objection, I’m wearing the cochlear parts. I complained, like a whiny kid, but Marilyn was firm that I not shy away from using my new ears even if I’m not comfortable.  I wanted to wait until I shaved and showered but that would’ve been just delaying what must be done. The audiologist was really pushy that I really had to wear them — all the time I was awake.

So, there you have it. Yes, it’s a different world for me now.  It’s a better world.

I just hope those bells are not tolling for me.

REFLEXIVE AND DEFINITELY NOT FLUFFY – Marilyn Armstrong

Garry and I are off to UMass. Today he gets (tada!) his new electronic, high-tech hearing apparatus. We have NO idea what to expect. Hopes are high, nerves are taut, and it’s going to be a long day.

We shall write tomorrow, hopefully, but in the meantime, we’ll be gone most of the day.

Also, WordPress is acting weird. Again. I can’t use the “like” button and I have to sign in for every comment. But that’s okay because Chrome is behaving weirdly also. I’m ready to hide under the sofa.

Later, gang.

FOWC with Fandango — Reflex

RDP# 85: FLUFFY