By Ashleigh Armstrong
With chemotherapy done, I now had to face my next hurdle, a double mastectomy. I was given 6 weeks in between chemo and my surgery to heal and regain some strength. It was such a strange feeling to have nowhere to be. No doctors to poke and prod me. No labs to be drawn.
A week after chemo was done, I was given an ultrasound and told that I still had half of the tumor left. It went from 2.4 cm to 1.2cm, exactly half gone. This meant that my body was responding to chemo. There was a possibility, however, that the cancer was still alive and well in my body. This idea was running rampant through my mind.
I was told by my oncologist early on that if chemo didn’t do the job the first time that we’d do it again. I was devastated when I learned that half of the tumor was still there because I knew that meant more chemo, once surgery was done and I wouldn’t achieve PCR.
PCR stands for Pathological Complete Response meaning your body had a complete response to chemo and there is no cancer left. It is the main goal when going through chemo. In every cancer group I’m in I watched many, many women celebrate this milestone after surgery. I decided to keep this information mainly to myself. I didn’t need anyone else worrying or adding to my already consumed mind.
Everyone was worried though, just about other things. They kept asking me how I felt. “You’re going to lose your boobs. That must be so hard.”
I don’t know why but for some reason it just didn’t seem like the end of the world. My boobs or getting rid of the chance of it coming back and having to do this all over again? It didn’t really seem like there was a decision to be made. The latter was the only option. I knew it would have some effect on me eventually but during the waiting process it just didn’t seem to hold any space in my head.
My wonderful aunt, Laurie, flew in from Washington to help take care of me for the following weeks. She even quarantined at her niece’s house for 2 weeks before coming to mine because of Covid.
On August 12th, 2020 I went in for my double mastectomy bright and early in the morning. I was allowed to have Lissa come with me but only for one hour during pre op because of Covid. That one hour turned into 3. They were behind on getting started and couldn’t find a vein for my IVs. It turned out that chemo had destroyed my veins. Something I didn’t even know was possible. It took about an hour and a half and an ultrasound machine to get a good vein then the rest of the process was able to continue. Lissa was asked to leave and I was swiftly put under.
I woke up and felt groggy but fine. I was fed a graham cracker, monitored for an hour and sent home. This part is still crazy to me but I digress.
The next few days were a blur. My aunt, Laurie, kept me on top of the pain meds and I just slept the days away. By day 4, I felt well enough to not need the pain meds anymore and only took them to sleep going forward. I was up and walking around, hanging out with the twins on the couch and moving around slowly but like normal. Things were looking up.
We had to rewrap my dressing and I saw myself for the first time. I had expanders underneath the skin so I wasn’t completely flat. I was actually excited by how much skin they were able to save instead of being sad by how I looked. I texted friends saying “I think I’ll be able to be a D again one day.” I look back now and laugh at that.
The weeks passed by and life went back to normal. I was able to lift my arms again. I wasn’t sore anymore and it was time for my aunt to go home.
2 days later I got the call from the surgeon with the tumor results. I was a ball of nerves. I thought for sure I was going to receive the news that there was residual cancer at the time of surgery and I was going to have continue with chemo for 12 more weeks. I had Lissa next to me, it was a video call so I didn’t have to be alone for this one.
Almost in slow motion the surgeon said “You had a pathological complete response. There was no sign of cancer left. I’m not recommending anymore chemo.”
Lissa fell to the floor in tears. Then she stood up and cheered and clapped. I calmly said “I can’t believe this, thank you!” I stayed calm. I just didn’t believe it. If Lissa wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have believed it.
It’s been nearly 3 months since my double mastectomy. I’m in the early stages of reconstruction. Currently they have just expanded my skin. All reconstruction stages are behind due to Covid. My hair is growing back just as thick as it was before. I’m receiving Immunotherapy infusions every 3 weeks to lower my chances of a reoccurrence and overall, I am feeling great.
There is an end to the nightmare that is breast cancer. I’m approaching my 32nd birthday and I plan to cherish it like I never have before. If nothing else, I hope that my story can raise awareness especially for young women everywhere. Breast cancer can happen and it does happen but it’s not the end of the world.