#MySkyeBody Conversations – Ashley Armstrong
Posted on April 04 2018
The month of March has become synonymous with spring, more daylight (finally!), and also cancer awareness. With nearly 40% of men and women being diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, it’s hard to not be affected by the disease in some form or another. We all know someone, or know someone who knows someone, who has been affected by cancer – and it’s scary. When we hear the word, it brings out some of the worst emotions – sadness, anger, desperation, grief… but it can also bring about stories of hope, triumph, survival, and determination.
As part of our #MySkyeBody Conversations series, this week we present Ashley Armstrong, social media influencer, mom of three, avid yogi, and breast cancer survivor. Having under gone a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery in her mid-thirties, we talked to her about how these procedures and their effects on her body image, her treatment journey, and how she continues to remain body positive on a day to day basis.
SKYE: Tell us about yourself
AA: I’m a born and raised California girl, an introvert, and an only child. I lived in Vancouver, Canada for college, which was no preparation for surviving winter in Boston, where I live now. I’ve travelled to a lot of exotic places, including a month-long solo trip to India. I have a dog named Waffle and a cat named Chicken. In the last three years, I got divorced, went through cancer treatment, got a new job, moved across the country, and moved in with my boyfriend and his three kids. Just thinking about doing all that makes me feel tired!
SKYE: Give us a quick synopsis of the timeline of your journey with cancer
AA: I was 34 when my boyfriend discovered the lump in my right breast. We were on a vacation together for a friend’s destination wedding over the Thanksgiving holiday. I got an ultrasound a month or so later, but with no family history of breast cancer and being fairly young, my doctor advised a “wait and see” approach. Another Thanksgiving passed, and follow-up imaging shattered our nonchalance: the lump had grown. I got a biopsy and then the bad news: I had cancer. That was at Christmas.
The next few months were a blur of emotion, anxiety, and doctor appointments. I had consultations with a breast surgeon, a reconstructive plastic surgeon, a radiology oncologist, and a medical oncologist, and together with my team, we put together a year-long plan. A double mastectomy in March, a summer of biweekly chemotherapy infusions, radiation if necessary, and then reconstructive surgery in the late fall. I cut my hair and started saying my goodbyes—to my breasts, to my coworkers, to my year. I cancelled all my plans, and was as ready as I was going to get.
One of the most challenging aspects of my cancer journey was the wait to get started. The weeks leading up to my mastectomy were terrifying, but in a way, it was a relief when the day finally came, because it meant the agony of waiting was over. It had been a long three months of planning, preparing, and waiting—and once I knew there was cancer inside me, I didn’t want to wait and see anymore. I wanted it out.
So I woke up from surgery breastless and with four drain tubes sticking out of my chest. There was a lot of pain, but also a really gratifying feeling, too. I’d taken the first step in fighting my breast cancer.
In an unexpected plot twist, it turned out that surgery was also the last step of the fight. My postoperative pathology report revealed that the cancer was nowhere near as advanced as we’d originally thought. Although my tumor was large, it was predominantly pre-cancerous DCIS (“stage 0”), with a very small segment of invasive ductal carcinoma (stage 1). My medical team congratulated me on my good fortune, because I no longer needed to do radiation or chemo.
When you’re dealing with something as significant as cancer, it seems trivial to say something like “I got my summer back.” But that’s exactly what happened. I’d cleared my schedule to fight cancer, and then my cancer plans got cancelled. I went back to work months earlier than planned, and had my reconstruction surgery months earlier than planned. Bizarrely enough, life went more or less back to “normal.” I was placed on a 10-year regimen of daily estrogen-blocking pills and sent back to my normal life. Of course, nothing is ever really normal again after cancer.
SKYE: What was it like looking at yourself in the mirror for the first time after a) the double mastectomy and b) the re constructive surgery?
AA: After the mastectomy, I looked pretty freaky. I had four drains coming out of me, and you could see the tubes running under my skin. At the time of the mastectomy, my surgeons placed temporary implants called tissue expanders. They were made of hard plastic and had a magnetic valve so that over time, we could fill them with saline to stretch my skin enough to hold permanent implants. I think that knowing it was temporary helped me cope with how weird I looked. I tried to appreciate the novelty of it all. I would chest bump friends with my rock boobs when we hugged. I stuck refrigerator magnets to them.
So I definitely felt like a walking, talking science project for a while. The reconstructive surgery, however, was a whole different matter entirely. I am so grateful to my plastic surgeon, who is so talented and so skilled. A reconstruction is not a boob job, but she did lovely work and I’m pretty happy with the results. I had gotten accustomed to the weird look of the expanders, and so it was amazing to take off the bandages and not feel like an alien when I looked in the mirror.
SKYE: How has cancer, particularly the mastectomies and re-constructive surgeries, changed your mental image of your body image?
AA: Cancer has completely recalibrated my life. It’s taught me to prioritize myself, and it’s taught me to set boundaries around what’s important to me. It’s also given me a front-row ticket to see just how powerful—and fragile—human bodies really are. My body is capable of incredible healing, but it can also succumb to a disease that I can’t see or feel. I think that combination of empowerment and powerlessness gives me some humility and a better sense of where I fit into the world. It helps me appreciate the inherent beauty that we all have inside of us, even if it doesn’t conform to a physical ideal.
SKYE: What is your favourite physical attribute?
AA: My scars represent everything I’ve been through and everything that I’ve become. I have 13 scars from cancer, and I hold a deep respect for every one of them.
SKYE: Having gone through this process, what was the best advice you've ever gotten as it relates to (body image) acceptance and is the best advice you can give to someone else currently going through the same thing?
AA: We need to stop bullying ourselves over how we look. We encourage each other, so why are we so negative on ourselves? I’ve said cruel things to my reflection that I would never in a million years say to my friends.
So let’s go back to elementary school and remember the golden rule, but flip it around on ourselves. Let’s treat ourselves as we would treat others. And let’s try to see ourselves in the way the people who love us see us. When I had my mastectomy, my friends, family, and coworkers wrote me the most amazing notes about how strong and resilient I was. I kept them all and reread them regularly. My experience with cancer has taught me a lot of things, and one of them is that you can live a fiercely beautiful life no matter how you look.
SKYE: If you could rename the body positive movement in your own unique way what would it be?
AA: Let’s take it beyond our bodies and call it positivity. Life deals everyone a lot of crap, and all we can do is do our best to rise to the occasion and live beyond the negativity. Happiness is a choice; every minute, we have the chance to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. So let’s treat ourselves and our bodies with kindness. Let’s venture out into the world with compassion and patience and gratitude. Let’s put in the effort and find a way to choose the positive path in everything we do.
To learn more about Ashley and her journey, follow her on Instagram @breastcanceryogi