It is an honor to introduce you to a dear friend Cortney. I first met “Cort” 9 years ago as we were first time moms trying to figure out this new life with a little one. Along with three other first time moms, we formed a playgroup as a way to support each other through the transition into motherhood. Our group of 5 moms with 5 kids has now grown to 5 moms with 14 kids. We still manage to get away for playgroup from time to time, which is now more appropriately titled “Girls Night Out.” We have done life together through many seasons of highs and lows and have experienced great beauty and pain together. We know each others stories well. I vividly remember the day Cort shared she was pregnant with her 2nd and 3rd child…twins! She was beyond excited, yet anxious, and she beamed with that pregnancy glow. Late into her 1st trimester one of the twins she was carrying passed away. The mixed emotions she experienced knowing one twin had lost it’s life so the other could thrive was so heartbreaking yet powerful to watch. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only loss Cortney has experienced. She has also had to endure the painful death of her mom after a 10 year battle with breast cancer. This is where her story picks up. Please join me as she vulnerably shares her decision to have a preventative double mastectomy a short 4 weeks ago. Here is her truly inspiring story, in her words…
What led to your decision to get a double mastectomy? Can you walk us through the process of that decision?
My mom was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer when I was a teenager and fought almost a 10 year battle with it before it finally took her life. Back then, it was very rare to live that long with cancer, so she was a trooper. It started out as a lump in her breast and then metastasized into her bones and eventually into her brain. She underwent so many painful procedures; experimental bone marrow transplants, vertebrae fusing, spinal taps, lung aspirations. Ugh- it was so tough on her. Cancer tortured her physically and the rest of our family emotionally. During the later years of my mom’s sickness, I started struggling with depression when the very real feelings of hopelessness washed over me. We had to stand by helplessly as we watched her become a shell of who she once was. Not fun.
When I entered my thirties, I started getting regular mammograms because of my mom’s young age at diagnosis. My mammograms showed that I too had the same kind of fibrocystic breast tissue that had made my mom’s cancer so difficult to detect. I also had several masses in each breast. Awesome. After a biopsy of one small area, I was told that it was benign, but that there were pre-cancerous calcifications lurking around in there and we really needed to monitor them. This was frustrating to hear as I remembered that years before my mom was diagnosed, she had found a tumor in her breast and her doctor told her, “It looks ok, you just have very fibrocystic breasts. We’ll just monitor it.” Argh! Several years later, both of my grandmother’s were diagnosed with breast cancer too. Both underwent mastectomies but for one grandmother it was too late, she passed away after it metastasized into brain cancer.
Last year my masses grew to the point that I could no longer sleep on my stomach comfortably and I went in for another ultrasound. Once again, they said, “It looks ok, we’ll just monitor it, but you really should go talk to the Genetic Counselor.” After years of putting it off, I went and did a session of genetic counseling where I was diagnosed as high risk due to personal family history (my mother diagnosed early and two grandmothers and a maternal great-grandmother with breast cancer) as well as other factors. I was given a 26+% diagnosis, which means I have over a 1 in 4 chance of developing breast cancer someday. I took the BRCA gene test and tested negative (yeah!) however, this did not affect my high risk diagnosis since I was still placed at the 26+% for developing the cancer in my lifetime. I basically had three options:
1) Monitoring/ surveillance for early detection with a mammogram, MRI, ultrasound and 2 specialist visits per year for the rest of my life. This would cost nearly $2,000 per year even with my insurance.
2) Taking a low-dose of chemotherapy for the rest of my life.
3) A prophylactic (preventative) bilateral mastectomy and possibly reconstruction. I would have no more mammograms for the rest of my life (yeah!).
After struggling through such a painful situation with my mom and then watching both of my grandmothers have double-mastectomies, I really wrestled with the anxiety of the seemingly inevitable diagnosis that many high-risk women like me deal with. I walked into every mammogram, ultrasound or MRI expecting to get a diagnosis of cancer. I dreaded those visits and so did my husband. I also knew that I didn’t really want to keep going back for unending painful biopsies of my growing masses, especially since the number had grown to three by this time. Awesome.
My genetic counselor recommended Bright Pink to me. They are a national non-profit experiential outreach group focusing on the prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women. They provide support for high-risk individuals like myself. I went to some of the events (all by myself) and met some amazingly brave women who are all at various stages on the monitoring and prevention track. I made some great friends among these inspiring women. They helped educate me in the process and give me advice on my situation. This group ended up being invaluable to me through this journey and in my decision making process. I would have been lost without their information, help and support.
My husband and I prayed hard about the decision, asking God to direct us and lead us through the process. Our friends also prayed over us. We asked God to completely close the door if we chose a path that was not for us. I couldn’t ignore my intuition and I quickly came to the decision that I wanted to have the double mastectomy and reconstruction. This way I could be free from the emotional roller coaster of developing the disease that has taken the lives of too many amazing women in my family. I wanted to be able to know that I did what I could to give my two kids and husband the best chance of having me in their world for as long as possible. I want to be able to dance at their weddings and hold my grand babies. Obviously, this is not guaranteed, nothing in life is, but it is a proactive solution to eliminate a very probable outcome.
Tell us about your mom…
She was a light. She was an incredible friend, comforter, encourager, servant, bible study leader and teacher. She was an amazingly gifted mom. She wanted to be nothing else and she was proud of it. I am so proud of her for that. She was extremely gentle yet strong and fiercely protective of her family. She knew Jesus well and walked with Him. She was creative and thoughtful, sacrificial and prayerful. She reminds me of the Proverbs 31 woman: a passage that contains this crazy list of seemingly unattainable virtues of a Godly woman, yet she effortlessly exuded so many of them at once. She bravely faced endless surgeries and scary diagnoses with expectancy that God was going to be glorified through her struggle. She shared her story with the doctors, nurses and everyone she came into contact with.
Every day that passes as a parent I am reminded of how special she was. There are so many ways I wish to be like her. There are so many times throughout the day I wonder how she would react, how she would respond…so many ways I miss my mom. I miss her company. When I became an adult, she became my friend. My heart still aches when I see a mother and daughter out spending time together because I know I’ll never experience that casual closeness of running errands or grabbing lunch with her again. I miss her guidance. She gave the best advice and knew how to speak truth in love. She was an amazing wife. By her example, she taught me how to truly love my husband. I miss her presence in my kids lives. It’s such a tragedy that they will never know her, because she would have had so much love for them. She would have been the first one to offer to hold and rock them to sleep as babies. She would probably be volunteering in their classrooms and planning all of their parties.
It’s been 11 years since her death, and I still can’t believe she’s gone. I felt numb for so long, void of highs and lows. Depression robbed my every effort to grieve my mom’s death in a productive, healthy way. I knew as I was just going through the motions of life that it was wasted time, yet it was so difficult for me to climb my way out of the depression. It took many years before I was finally able to deal with the emotions of loss, confront them, and heal from them. God’s grace has been faithful to cover me during those tough years.
How do you think she would feel about your decision to get a double mastectomy?
I think being supportive would be an understatement. She was an excellent caregiver and she would have probably moved in with us for a month to take care of me and my family! I’m sure she’d also say, ” I wish I would have done that.”
How did your dad respond?
He was excited and a bit relieved. My dad feels that same way my sister and I do, that breast cancer was almost inevitable, so he was extremely supportive. My dad flew out for 5 days to stay with us and help take care of me after my surgery. I’m sure it was difficult emotionally for him to be back in a caretaker role. It probably brought back some painful memories of doing the same things for my mom. I know he enjoyed being helpful though, and he was helpful. I needed that.
Continue reading Cortney’s story in Part 2…
*Cortney is a wife to Ryan, a mama to Kieran (9) and Cale (7) and her favorite drink is Sangria. We are so thankful to Cortney for gifting us with this powerful story. We invite you to engage her story in the comments section below. May all of our reflections and comments bring honor to the beauty of her story.