By Cortney Drover
My name is Cortney Drover, and my identical twin sisters’ name is Connie Claeys. We are 37-year-old females living with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, and being identical twins, we both carry the BRCA2 gene.
Here is our story…
In April 2015 I felt a lump in my left armpit. Upon going to the ER at Foothills Medical Centre to have it checked out, I was told my lymph nodes were enlarged due to fighting off a possible cold. Fast forward two months later to June 2015. I went to my family doctor to have the lump checked. They requested a mammogram which led to a biopsy. Within days at the age of 29 years old, I was diagnosed with Stage III invasive ductal carcinoma. Being a twin, my twin sister Connie was immediately asked to have an ultrasound to see if she had any tumors. Her ultrasound showed two lumps in her left breast that looked suspicious. I always believed, being the oldest by five minutes, that I was given this diagnosis for both of us, but after a mammogram and biopsy, they found that one of Connies’ lumps was benign and one malignant. She was diagnosed with Stage II invasive ductal carcinoma. As Connie had no lymphatic involvement, she had a lumpectomy to remove the cancerous lump. After the tumor went under pathology, they realized the lump they removed was in fact the wrong lump, it was the lump they had thought was benign. This proved that both lumps were cancerous. This led to us both being tested for the BRCA2 gene which blood work proved we both carry.
At the time, I was a mom to a four-year-old son. After a lot of tears, so much anger and many days of debating possibly not doing chemotherapy because I wanted more children so badly, within a week I was placed in a chair and started my journey. I did eight rounds of chemo from July to December 2015. Thankfully, Connie did not need chemo or radiation with her stage of cancer. Connie and I both had double mastectomies in January 2016. I was due to start radiation a couple of months after I finished by chemo treatments, but… life for me took a turn.
After being told it would be nearly impossible for me to ever become pregnant again because of the chemo, and not having time to freeze my eggs, I found out I was pregnant at the end of February 2016, only a month after I had my double mastectomy; my first daughter, Avery. She is a miracle!
Little did I know I was pregnant with my little miracle during that surgery. I gave birth to Avery in October 2016. I had to wait until Avery was born before I could start radiation. My radiologist did not want me to delay radiation, but I was determined to be able to have another child and my oncologist gave me the ok to do so. I decided to continue with my pregnancy.
I became pregnant again in 2018 and I gave birth to my second daughter, Harlow, in March of 2019. Connie and I both began taking the drug tamoxifen to lower the production of estrogen in our bodies for five years.
In the summer of 2020, five years after my original cancer diagnosis, I noticed a lump on my neck. The left side, the same side as my breast cancer. I immediately made an appointment with my oncologist. He requested I have an ultrasound on the lump. When I went to have the ultrasound, they told me the lump was too small to worry about and did not do the ultrasound. About a month later, the lump was still there. My oncologist again requested an ultrasound, and requested it be done this time. The ultrasound looked suspicious, and my oncologist requested I get a full CT and PET scan. In late November 2020, my family and I got the results. The cancer had spread extensively in my body. That day, at the age of 34 years old, I was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. I immediately started on targeted therapy drugs.
Connie was declared cancer-free in September of 2020. They say if you are clear of cancer for five years, your chances of it coming back start to reduce. Fast forward to August 2022, Connie was asked to be part of a trial that tests a drug that could possibly help lower the possibility of early-stage cancers from becoming metastatic. Before she could go on this trial, she had to get tested for what they call ctDNA, otherwise known as circulating tumour DNA, a DNA that comes from cancerous cells and tumours. If you don’t carry the ctDNA, you are a candidate for the trial, as long as you have no active tumors. Blood work confirmed Connie carried ctDNA. She then needed a CT scan to determine whether she had any active tumors. CT and PET scans determined Connie had a small tumor on her lung. This came as a complete shock. Connie had surgery on her lung in September of 2022 to remove the lump. Unfortunately, the surgery was unable to be completed as when they went in to remove the tumor from her lung, they found numerous cancerous nodules in her chest cavity. In September of 2022, at the age of 36 years old, Connie was also diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. Connie never had any symptoms caused by the tumors, she only found out about the tumors because of the trial drug she was offered.
Connie and I are now both on targeted therapy drugs. We both get CT scans every three months to see if the medication is working, and so far, it is. We both recently had radical hysterectomies to stop any estrogen from being produced, and to take away the chances of us developing ovarian cancer.
My diagnosis, as terrible as it was, I believe started our journey. Had I not been diagnosed, my twin may never have known until much later, that she also had cancer.
This terrible disease has opened our eyes on how precious life is. My children have a 50% of carrying the BRCA2 gene, it is terrifying wondering if they may have to go through this when they are older. They will not have the choice to be tested until they are 16 years old, and they may choose to never be tested. I know that if ever needed, they will have the support of an army as me and my sisters have had throughout this journey. It doesn’t get easier to carry this everyday, we just get stronger.
We decided to do the CIBC Run for The Cure this year and the support was absolutely amazing. We had 36 family and friends on our team supporting us. This journey is hard and can feel very lonely at times, both Connie and I know we are STRONGER TOGETHER.