Kelly McCarthy, 34, a clinical nurse specialist, was eight months pregnant with her first child when she found a lump in her breast during a monthly breast self-exam. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I was confused. I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know if it was milk or a tumorÃ¢â‚¬”and neither did my doctors,Ã¢â‚¬Â she says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Still, I felt like something was wrong.Ã¢â‚¬Â
She was right to worry. Kelly was diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer on December 15, 2011. She had her baby boy one week later. Ã¢â‚¬Å“You would think that the whole time I would be crying, but we were busy getting the babyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s room ready,Ã¢â‚¬Â she says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The day of his birth I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think about my cancer one bit. Having him is what kept things positive,Ã¢â‚¬Â she says.
But for her identical twin Kristen Maurer, 34, coping with KellyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s diagnosis proved much more difficult: Ã¢â‚¬Å“I bent over and sobbed,Ã¢â‚¬Â Kristen says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“By far I took the news harder.Ã¢â‚¬Â In spite of her fear for her sisterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s life, however, Kristen says she wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t thinking about her own breast cancer riskÃ¢â‚¬”even though having a sister with breast cancer greatly increases your own odds of contracting the disease.
It took a few months (and a bit of prompting from Kelly), but Kristen finally saw a doctor to get herself checked. The first mammogram didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t pick up on anything. But she pushed her insurance company to allow additional testing, and an MRI revealed cancerÃ¢â‚¬”stage 0Ã¢â‚¬”in April 2012, just four months after KellyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s diagnosis.
The Road to Recovery
In June 2012, Kristen had a double mastectomy and immediate breast reconstruction. Meanwhile, Kelly was going through chemotherapy and radiation. Two weeks after KristenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s surgery, Kelly went in for a single mastectomy with plans to remove the other breast when she was ready for reconstruction.
The decision to remove one or both breasts was both Ã¢â‚¬Å“easy and difficult,Ã¢â‚¬Â they say. Because her sisterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s breast cancer was so aggressive, KristenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s doctorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s advised she get the double mastectomy. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The thinking was, letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s remove as much as you can so thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no more breast tissue to become infected,Ã¢â‚¬Â says Kristen.
That didn't mark the end of their strugglesÃ¢â‚¬”or triumphs. Kristen had a surprise pregnancy after her reconstruction, a blessing that delayed her final implant surgery for a year, until May 2013. That marked the end of her battle, but Kelly's continues. After her single mastectomy, she received radiation until September 2012. In August 2013 she underwent another surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes due to a benign cyst. And now, after nearly two years of treatment, Kelly is set to have her other breast removed.
However, because some of her tissue was damaged during radiation, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s difficult for her to get expanders (which help make room for an implant during reconstruction). ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why her plastic surgeon has recommended a unique surgery that will transplant some of KristenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s skin and fat to rebuild KellyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s breasts. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I guess I get a sort of tummy tuck out of it!Ã¢â‚¬Â says Kristen. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll be the first identical twins with breast cancer to receive this surgery.
Once KellyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reconstruction is behind them, it will be the last of their string of surgeries, and a sort of closure on their cancer survival story. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We hope that the result is two beautiful new breasts for Kelly,Ã¢â‚¬Â says Kristen. Ã¢â‚¬Å“But also, our hope is that she can begin to rebuild her self-esteem. It will allow her to put on a shirt and not immediately notice an indentation, wear a new bra confidently, and a bikini next summer.Ã¢â‚¬Â Kristen (left) and Kelly on Kristen's wedding day in October 2009.
Focusing on the Positive
Even in the face of two devastating diagnoses, the twins share an overwhelming positivity. Ã¢â‚¬Å“WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re both giggly and happy-go-lucky,Ã¢â‚¬Â says Kelly. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t like that the entire time, but when times are tough you have to find the humor in something or youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll go nuts.Ã¢â‚¬Â Still, it was a scary and frustrating experience. Ã¢â‚¬Å“YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re saying good-bye to your old life and hello to a new one of chemo and surgery,Ã¢â‚¬Â adds Kristen. Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s okay to cry, but, like I told Kelly when sheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d get down, you have to pull up your britches and move on.Ã¢â‚¬Â
In a way, the women feel that the cancerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s timing was serendipitous. They were both able to have children, something that may not be possible after their treatment. And they learned how crucial it is to be their own advocate. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We were 32 and healthy when we were diagnosed,Ã¢â‚¬Â says Kelly. Ã¢â‚¬Å“You canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t assume that it canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t happen to me. If you think somethingÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s wrong, get it checked out; do your self-exams. Even if youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re unsure of what you find, get it checked out anyway.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Neither Kristen nor Kelly were at high risk for breast cancer. They donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have a family history of the disease. They donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t carry the BRCA gene, either. Neither smokes nor drinks heavily, and they work out and eat healthy on the regular. They did much of what they could to lower their risk of breast cancer, but it ultimately didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t matter. Sometimes preventive steps arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t enoughÃ¢â‚¬”which is why early detection was key for both women.
Today, Kelly and Kristen donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t show any signs of breast cancerÃ¢â‚¬”and their future is brighter than ever. That includes two newly built housesÃ¢â‚¬”right next to each other. Oh, and a beach-and-bikini vacation next year to celebrate their good fortune and yep, new bodies. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Our journey with cancer will always be there,Ã¢â‚¬Â says Kelly. Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s part of us, and weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re okay with that.Ã¢â‚¬Â