My secrets: I don't have nipples. My right breast is a B-cup silicone implant. My left is a temporary implant trapped under dark, thin skin.
To hide the secret, I wore a long sleeve blue-jean buttoned shirt and a large clear crystal necklace when I walked into an elevator recently at a high-rise building in Miami Beach.
I had a cough that wouldn’t stop. I was in pain from radiation therapy, even though it happened two years ago. I should have been in bed. But I needed to connect with positive people. When the doors opened, three cancer survivors smiled at me. They knew my secret.
Michael Maryanoff, 28, is in remission now.
He was being treated for acute lymphoblastic lymphoma, a rare cancer that affects blood cells and the immune system. He went from making me laugh every day during treatment to becoming a stand-up comedian featured in Comedy Central’s South Beach Comedy Festival.
During moments when he should have been sad, he was writing jokes. He directed, produced and acted in The Real Housewives of Chemotherapy, a video to poke fun at the cancer treatment experience. He wrote and co-produced A Hawk Once Told Me, a film that made it to the Miami Short Film Festival.
Standing next to him was Christine Armario, 32. The painful days when she was being treated for primary mediastinal non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, were behind her. She has been in remission since 2012.
I got lucky when I met Armario, an Associated Press reporter, during a Miami Herald assignment. We talked for a few seconds, exchanged numbers and agreed to meet. She was beautiful, smart and graceful, and I knew Maryanoff would love her.
During her treatment, Armario found support in one of her mom’s friends, Gloria Suardiaz Alvarez, a two-time breast cancer survivor.
I was in Miami Beach to meet her. We walked to a nearby restaurant.
I was in pain. But more than 40,000 people die from breast cancer every year, according to the National Cancer Institute. I don’t like to complain. Maryanoff is experiencing side effects from treatment that affected his hip. He doesn’t complain. You move forward with your life without allowing limitations to stop you.
Armario and Maryanoff are fearless. Now that they’re both in remission, they are moving to Los Angeles.
I learned that Suardiaz Alvarez had been the vice chair of the Y-me National Breast Cancer Organization. For more than 30 years, they provided 24-hour free peer counselors. I had called that line, and was so grateful for all that she had done to keep it running for as long as she was able to.
Suardiaz Alvarez is a warrior. “I have had eight reconstruction surgeries,” she said.
Her breast looked perfect. She was in shape. She looked healthy. I felt hope.
Some days later, I got the results of my first scans since my 2011 diagnosis. If there were tumors, that meant more chemo. If I was in the clear, that meant there could still be breast cancer stem cells lurking. The progenitors can travel through the bloodstream to other parts of the body undetected. They are resistant to chemo and radiation, and they are the cause of recurrence.
My friend Jelle Prins was with me when I met with my oncologist, Dr. Marc Lippman, deputy director of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School Of Medicine. While we waited, we talked about the future.
“Once I recover from reconstruction surgery and I get rid of this infection, I’m going to go climb a mountain,” I said. “There is so much I want to do.”
Prins smiled. Lippman relayed the results of the scan to me: There was a minuscule spot on my lung and fat on the liver. Losing weight is a priority, but nothing else concerned him.
“Can I say I’m cancer free?”
“I will say it: You are cancer free."
And, he noted, it was nice to give some good news for a change.
Andrea Torres is a Local 10 News digital reporter. Click here for more of her breast cancer awareness stories.