If you know Allison Walmark, she has likely been making you laugh – and helping you keep perspective when the going gets tough for years! If you don’t know her, you’re welcome! Allison is a mom of two in Westport who truly is the definition of resilience and warrior. Just over 6 years ago, Allison was diagnosed with breast cancer, and given she had two kids, and was in her early 50s, she decided to do a double mastectomy without looking back (the day she refers to as “Jug Removal Day!”). Today she is sharing her story- and her journey with us – and It is unquestionably one that will make you laugh (because she’s hilarious), feel stronger, and remember that sharing with others is how we all heal, so thank you Allison!
Author disclaimer: This is my cancer story, and my truth. Love me or hate me, my mind is programmed to see the funny – no matter how bleak – in any situation. My sense of humor is “slightly off,” but slightly off in an “if-I-can-make-people-laugh-or-smile-and-forget-their-troubles-for-five-seconds-I’ve-done-a-good-deed” kind of way. For those who read my story and find “my funny” offensive, call me. I’ll put you in touch with my kids. They’re on your side.
Every October like clockwork, I scheduled my annual mammogram and ultrasound appointment. Like my mother and maternal grandmother, we had a propensity for dense, fibrocystic breasts. Some families share genetic predisposition to blue eyes or straight hair. My family’s legacy is lumpy boobs.
Not one for superstition or triskaidekaphobia (our house number is 13, and my dad was born on March 13th, which was also his lucky number), I figured “what could go wrong?” and scheduled my appointment for Friday, October 13, 2017. Yada, yada, yada, Friday the 13th arrives: “Slam the Mamms” day. My name is called. I’m shown to a dressing room and given a white, semi-cozy 100% cotton robe, and instructed to take everything off above the waist, tie the robe in front, and go to Room XYZ. The mostly painless (thanks to my dense breasts) mammogram took maybe 10 minutes — which included my annual selfie with each breast — flat like pancakes — in the machine, before the technician flips the switch for the machine to do its thing. After the mammogram, I segued to the ultrasound room for Phase Two. I noticed the ultrasound took longer than usual, and the once chatty technician wasn’t so chatty anymore. She also seemed to hone in on one specific area of my right breast. She excused herself for a moment, and returned with the on-staff radiologist. “I am very concerned about your ultrasound,” the doctor said, “I strongly urge you to get a biopsy. Call today. Don’t wait.” To recap: Mammogram findings: Fine. Ultrasound findings: Not so much. Not the greatest news to hear on a Friday. For the most part, I’m a “until-there’s-something-to-worry-about-don’t-worry-about-it” kind of person. (My kids will tell you that on more than one occasion, I’ve responded to their claims of various illness with my insanely empathic and brilliant motherly wisdom: Unless there is blood dripping from your eyeballs, you’re going to school today.)
On my solo drive home from Trumbull to Westport, I was calm for a person who was just advised – no, commanded – to schedule an immediate biopsy. Truth be told, I didn’t need a biopsy to tell me what my instinct and intuition already knew: I had cancer. My only question was: How to best attack the monster? I didn’t immediately call my Michael, my husband, with the news. It sounds odd, but I didn’t want him to worry while at work. We are the strongest of partners in every sense of the word, but I was in full-on, take charge, action mode. I didn’t want to coddled or consoled. Besides, Michael would be home from NYC soon enough, and by that time, I’d have already picked up the kids from school, taken them to their afternoon activities, and figured out a way to deliver the news to him in the most non-alarming fashion. Best laid plans… Michael walked through the front door with a TGIF demeanor, kissed me, and nonchalantly asked about my day. “Weeeeeellllll,” I said, “I went for my annual mammogram and ultrasound today, and they found something that needs to be biopsied.” In the blink of an eye, his TGIF attitude changed to WTF. “It’s OK,” I not-so-convincingly reassured him, “Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it.” (Sidebar: A friend once asked what I used for contraception. “My personality!” I replied. “There’s no greater turn-off than that.” I now stand corrected. Telling your spouse/partner/sidepiece that you might have breast cancer is one of life’s biggest boner-busters.”) Putting our needs aside, we both instantaneously agreed that until – if — we had something to tell our kids, Ethan, age 10, and Eliza age 8, they’d remain blissfully unaware that anything was amiss. Let the weekend of uneasy happiness commence!
That weekend, I called friends who had been in my position to ask for physician referrals. Three same three names were repeated: Dr. Mary Pronovost, a board-certified breast surgeon specializing in breast diseases and oncology for the initial biopsy. If I needed surgery, I “must” use the powerhouse duo of Dr. Pronovost and Dr. Anke Ott-Young, a board-certified surgeon specializing in breast reconstruction. Now, for those who might be aware there is a little-known Jewish mother 11th Commandment that states: “Thou shalt only choose Jewish doctors.” (Case in point: I have one brother who is a lawyer, and one who’s a doctor. That’s just the natural order of things.) But, if all my Jewish and non-Jewish friends consistently recommended these two non-Jewish surgeons, you better believe they were the best of the best. Finally, board certified hematologist, and breast cancer specialist Dr. Richard Zelkowitz (OK, so one-out-of-three) would round out my team, if needed. And, I needed.
Michael and my initial consultation and biopsy was scheduled for Thursday, October 19, 2017. The biopsy took less than 30 minutes, and was relatively painless courtesy of local anesthetic and (once again) my dense breast tissue. With the biopsy complete, all we had to do was wait. Six. Long. Days. In the interim, for the sake of Ethan and Eliza, Michael and I continued to be like the R.E.M. song, “shiny, happy people.”
Wednesday, October 25, 2017. Biopsy results day: Positive. And by positive, I mean malignant. The results weren’t a surprise. According to the American Cancer Association, the average risk of a woman in the United States developing breast cancer sometime in her life is about 13%. This means there is a 1 in 8 chance she will develop breast cancer. Michael and I drove back to Dr. Pronovost’s office to listen to my options. I can’t recall her exact words, but Dr. Pronovost eased me into the conversation by saying that while cancer is never good, I had the “good cancer.” By that, she meant my tumor was caught early: Stage 1, known as Ductal carcinoma in Situ (DCIS), and was HR+/HER2-. My chance for long-term survival was excellent. (See, those higher-end shoes in my closet were a long-term investment after all!) Dr. Pronovost then explained my options. From the outset, Michael made it very clear that the decision was mine (my body, my choice and all), and he would respect and support whatever I chose. (Truth be told, I decided years ago that if I ever got breast cancer, I would have a bilateral mastectomy.)
Now face-to-face with reality, my options were: a breast-saving lumpectomy (my malignancy was isolated to my right breast), a unilateral or bilateral mastectomy with the possibility of post-chemotherapy or radiation. Dr. Pronovost explained the assets and liabilities of each option. Here I was, a 51-year-old woman with an incredible, loving husband and two young-ish kids. I didn’t need time to think. “Take ‘em both,” I said. “They’ve done what they needed to do. They breast fed two babies. They’ve brought me pleasure (I can say that since both parents are now deceased), and they’ve brought me pain. My breasts don’t define me, and I’m certainly not gonna let ‘em kill me.” (Although I did rock all-natural 32-D’s for most of my adult life.) Even though cancer was only in my right breast, I knew if I opted for a lumpectomy or unilateral mastectomy, I’d wonder when and if the cancer would spread. That’s me. For my own peace of mind, I wanted know that I could look my kids in the eye and honestly tell them that “Mommy did what she thought was best to prevent more cancer.” (Jump ahead: It’s also why, after my bi-lateral mastectomy, I chose to have additional lymph nodes removed to check for micrometasteses, as there was a smaller second tumor not detected on the ultrasound or biopsy, because it was hiding directly behind the visible tumor. Although the initial surgery margins were clear, and consulting doctors said it wasn’t necessary, I decided to undergo additional node removal, just to be safe. Seven nodes out; seven nodes negative. Negative being great news.)
Over the next few days, I scoured Web sites on how to best break the news to Ethan and Eliza. I wrote an outline of what to say, as Michael and I gently broke the news during family snuggle time. The kids cried but recovered quickly as kids do. We answered their questions, and as always, I tried to lessen the unknown with humor. “Mommy’s gonna be around a long time to annoy you.” Once the kids knew, we began telling family and friends, who predictably rallied and supported us. Breast cancer wasn’t something I was ashamed of or wanted to keep secret. If my situation could help one person to not feel alone, or encourage someone to finally schedule an overdue mammogram, that would be a personal win.
November 14, 2017: “Jug Removal Day” as I affectionately called it. (If I couldn’t change the situation, I leaned into it.) From mammogram/ultrasound to biopsy and bilateral mastectomy: One month, one day. No need to delay surgery. I wanted the surgery over and done. I viewed cancer as a distraction, and wanted to move forward. In typical “might-as-well-laugh-because-otherwise-I’d-cry” fashion, I walked into Bridgeport Hospital Yale New Haven Health with a spring in my step, a shirt with a song quote from Broadway’s show “Wicked” that read, “It’s time to trust my instincts. Close my eyes and leap! It’s time to try defying gravity” (gravity being a double entendre, although if anyone thinks a bilateral mastectomy is just a “free boob jobs,” you’re insane), a binder entitled “My Big Fat Cancer Folder” which held my medical records and photos of celebrities with great store-bought breasts (I requested the Kaley Cuoco), and Groucho Marx glasses. I’m fairly certain the receptionist or nurses thought I belonged in the psych ward. But, I do me. I see the funny in the darkest places.
Truth be told, there was one delay: on the way to the hospital, my husband informed me he “needed” to stop at Dunkin’ for coffee. No joke. He actually did, because… men. “Maybe you want to get a car wash, too?” I sarcastically added. He’s exceedingly lucky we weren’t BOTH admitted to the hospital that day, if you get my drift. Although I was the one having surgery, I remained cognizant and respectful of Michael’sanxiety and concern. If the routine of morning coffee could somehow assuage some of his worry, I was all for it.
Three women led my surgery team. In the most simplistic terms, Dr. Pronovost would “scoop ‘em out,” Dr. Anke Ott-Young would put in new stuffing (silicone implants), and anesthesiologist Dr. Lisa Caramico, would provide the most restful sleep of my life, thanks to Propofol. As I opted for direct-to-implant reconstruction rather than the more painful two-step tissue expander/implant reconstruction, I went to sleep with breasts, and woke up with breasts. I also awoke a 1950s Grandma-sized, harness-like hideous compression bra filled with UPS-worthy “packing materials” like gauze and bandages to prevent infection. Fashion-forward, this was not.
Even with a high pain tolerance, the first two weeks of recovery were unpleasant. The stitches along with the drainage tubes in each breast would pinch – a lot – if I moved a certain way or forgot I wasn’t supposed to raise my arms. (The drainage tubes that dripped blood and excess fluid tricked down in a mélange of colors into attached IV-looking bags. Those bags are not as sexy one would imagine….) Days were spent sleeping, as my body insisted. At night, my breasts felt as if they were filled with concrete, which eventually dissipated. Even though I’m a back-sleeper, two weeks of being unable to shift to either side without pain was impossible, and the lack of movement made my tush numb. Additionally, right before bed, my breasts tingled and felt as if they were filled with cement. Thank goodness for pain meds, but that also has a downside: constipation. For anyone facing surgery where pain meds are prescribed, take my advice: eat as much fiber as humanly possible before and after surgery. Ditto with drinking water. Opioids clog you up like nobody’s business. Just ask Matthew Perry.
Post-surgery, Dr. Zelkowitz determined I didn’t require chemotherapy or radiation, but needed to take a once-a-day pill called “Tamoxifen,” used to treat hormone-receptor positive breast cancer in pre-menopausal women, and can also reduce its recurrence. Faithfully, I took Tamoxifen every day for almost 5-1/2 years, until blood tests determined I was in menopause, which required a switch to the once-daily pill Arimidex. Knock wood, I never had negative side-effects from either drug, and from what friends tell me, some side-effects can be exceedingly unpleasant.
November 14, 2022. Five years cancer free. The five-year anniversary is a big deal, because it’s the traditional benchmark used when cancer survivors say the chance of recurrence lessens. I hope that’s true, but the future is unknown. There’s an old expression along the lines of: (Wo)Man Plans. God Laughs. Every day on Earth is a blessing, but nothing is certain. The love and support of friends and family — and laughter — is everything.
As October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I am honored to alive, happy and (I assume) healthy, to tell my story. I have many friends and acquaintances who have not been as lucky. I mourn their loss, and their family’s loss. Even today, I have a 57-year-old cousin in Florida with metastatic breast cancer, who fights every day for one more day. She is the real hero, not me. Breast cancer can happen to anyone. The greatest gift you can give yourself and your family is to immediately schedule your mammogram, especially if you’re overdue. Find me on Facebook (Allison Ziering Walmark) or IG (fromatoz66) if you have questions or concerns about yourself, a friend of family member! This is your journey, but maybe I can help demystify some of the aspects and offer suggestions from personal experience. Most importantly, if you need a ride to your mammogram, I will drive you where you need to go! Best of all, I won’t stop for Dunkin’!
Some more with Allison…
What is the best show you have recently (binge) watched? AND/OR what is the last book you read? I’m (a little) ashamed to admit that I binge watch Bravo’s “Below Deck” and “Below Deck Mediterranean.” Those shows make my life look drama-free! As for books, I just started “Holler Rat: A Memoir” by Westport-raised Anya Liftig. It’s a fascinating read about the dichotomy of her parent’s backgrounds.
What is one product you could not live without? My cell phone, of course!
What is your greatest fear? Taking the health and well-being of my family out of the equation, I have a fear of – wait for it – large statues. I’m doing a lot of self-introspection about why that might be. I have some hypotheses, but maybe I just need a therapist?
What is your greatest indulgence? Time. There’s never enough of it.
Which talent would you most like to have? I’d love to be a great dancer: hip-hop, ballroom, swing, Latin… being competent in just one genre would be nice! The second talent would be a Michelin-star chef.
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you? Parties and gatherings aren’t my thing; I’d rather be home with my family.
If you could travel to one place this next year, where would it be and why? My first choice would be to eat my way through Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia, starting at the northernmost point, and working my way down.
If you had 24 hours to do whatever you wanted to do, what would it be? Teleport to all the greatest cities in the world.
Are you a morning person, or a night owl? How does sleep fit into your life? I am an annoyingly cheerful morning person. Most weekday mornings, you’ll hear one or both kids scream from their rooms, “Mom! Stop singing!” Conversely, I’ve been able to fall asleep while attending a Rangers game!
Who is your favorite hero of fiction? Who are your heroes in real life? My real-life heroes will always be my (now deceased) parents, Jerry and Sandy Ziering. I have the happiest childhood memories, and they provided a solid foundation by showing my brothers and me the love they had for each other, and for us.