Growing up in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, they were known as the Roberts twins. Now 36 years old, identical twins, Erica Schrock and Nicole Walton are still best friends.
"Erica and I have always had a close relationship, where we talk almost daily," said Walton.
But it was impossible to know then, that this year, they would share devastating health news, a courageous decision, and together move forward with a brave solution.
It started when big sister McCall, also only in her 30s, got devastating news. The diagnosis, advanced breast cancer that had spread to her bones. Her genetic test showed why. There was a mutation in the BRCA 1 gene, inherited from her father's side. Nicole, a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, went to McCall's biopsy procedure.
"That's the first time I think I actually saw her skin and breast tissue, saw her breast, and I knew, I knew at that moment that's likely what this was," remembers Walton.
The twins, always in perfect health, now knew they needed the genetic test. The doctor reached Nicole by phone first, with her test results.
"I was in a state of disbelief because I honestly didn't think I was going to have this," said Walton through tears.
"I actually called Nicole, because I had missed a call from him (the doctor), so I called Nicole and she already knew the news, so she told me," said Schrock through tears.
Positive for the same mutation as their big sister meant an 80 percent risk of getting breast cancer. The twins, each married and each with two young children, had a decision to make.
"Seems like a dramatic decision, but when you see the numbers and you see your sister, it's no question. I mean, it's like this is what needs to happen," said Walton.
Being alive for Nicole's two little girls and Erica's two little boys was all it took for the twins to know in their hearts, they would both get double mastectomies. The surgery to remove their healthy breasts would bring them down to a less than one percent lifetime risk of ever getting breast cancer. The two, as always, would take the step together.
"Having each other, that we both have it, has helped us, I think, be stronger and move forward and take these steps that are very difficult. But we feel like are necessary," said Walton.
The twins researched their options of multiple surgeries, skin expanders, lengthy recoveries and losing all their breast skin and nipples. And then, a doctor insisted they go to The Center for Restorative Breast Surgery in New Orleans.
"And when we left, we all left, we said, 'Wow, we feel so much better about this whole process. We feel more confident now in what we're doing. We feel good about this,'" remembers Nicole.
"It's bad news to hear that you have a risk of developing a malignancy over the course of your lifetime, but the good news is that you can do something about it," explained Dr.
Scott Sullivan, a plastic surgeon specializing in micro surgical breast reconstruction after cancer. He is also the cofounder of The Center for Restorative Breast Surgery and St. Charles Surgical Hospital.
The twins learned that surgeons there could reduce their risk, while never altering the outside of their bodies. From her hospital bed, sister McCall, who was marching through chemo, major surgery, radiation, as the breast cancer had now spread to her brain, cheered her little sisters on.
"She knew that we were there for her and then, you know, she said, 'I want y'all to go do this. Don't even think about not doing it,'" said Schrock.
The twins had their surgery back to back. Doctors made a small incision in the fold under the breast and scooped out the internal breast tissue of fat and glands. Then they put cohesive implants in its place, the kind that can't spill or leak. Then they closed the incision, leaving only a small hidden scar. The breast skin, nipple and areola remain completely their own and intact. Cancer risk is still reduced by the same as other radical surgeries. It's the same surgery reportedly that actress Angelina Jolie had when she faced the same genetic results.
At the first post-op visit with drains still in place, the twins, who have no secrets, wanted to be examined in the same room to compare results.
"It's unbelievable to me that Dr. (Karl) Ordoyne was able to do a total mastectomy out of an incision this big. That's unbelievable," said Walton, holding her thumb and index finger about two inches apart.
Weeks later as the swelling continues to go down, they look more natural and know they made the right decision for their families. Now, they are awaiting the genetic results of another little sister, Meagan.
"I pray to God that she doesn't have the gene, but if she does, of course we'll be right there," said Schrock.
They also know big sister McCall's pain, is saving their lives.
"You also feel very guilty that you have your sister that didn't have that option," said Schrock as she cried.
The twins will have their children genetically tested soon, so at a young age they can begin openly talking about their futures and options. Because so many people think a decision like this is so radical, and are unaware of this potentially life-saving option, that is both cosmetically pleasing and fast healing, they have a new mission.
"We can't understand why this is happening to us and our family, but we believe that God has a plan for us. And I believe that getting this interview and getting this information is going to help somebody. And I think God had a hand in that," said Walton.
They ask for God’s hand in McCall's life as well.
"And we do pray that, for a miracle for her, that she will live to see her son grow up," added Walton, as Schrock said his name, Grant.
Eight weeks ago, doctors told oldest sister McCal the multiple cancer lesions throughout her brain that they were treating with radiation were incurable. However, last week, a scan showed they had all disappeared. The family said her doctors are baffled by the unexpected change. She continues chemotherapy.
For more on The Center for Restorative Breast Surgery call (504) 899-2800 or visit https://www.breastcenter.com/.
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