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Nation/World

November 16, 2013

Identical twins share breast cancer, rare surgery

CHICAGO — Identical twins Kelly McCarthy and Kristen Maurer have shared a lot in their lives so when one was diagnosed with breast cancer, she urged the other to get tested, too.

“You just do everything together, don’t you,” the doctor told Maurer before delivering the bad news that she, too, had the disease.

Now the 34-year-old twins from Crown Point, Ind., are sharing a medical rarity: Maurer donated skin and fat tissue for McCarthy’s breast reconstruction.

“It wasn’t a question, she didn’t have to ask me,” said Maurer, a college enrollment counselor. “Having a twin is very like having a child. You would do anything for them ... in a heartbeat.”

The first successful organ transplant was between identical twins in Boston in 1954 and involved a kidney.

Since then, identical twins have been involved in many other transplant operations, involving kidneys and other organs, bone marrow, and stem cells. But breast reconstruction between identical twins has only been done a handful of times; Maurer and McCarthy, a nurse, are among the youngest patients.

Identical twins are ideal donors because their skin, tissue and organs are perfect genetic matches, explained Dr. David Song, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of Chicago Medical Center. And that eliminates the need for anti-rejection medicine, he said.

Song performed the twins’ surgeries on Tuesday and both fared well.

Typically, breast reconstruction surgery involves implants and/or a woman’s own tissue, sometimes taken from the abdomen, thighs or buttocks. But McCarthy is among women who don’t have enough extra tissue; plus, radiation treatment damaged tissue near her breasts. So Maurer offered to be a donor.

McCarthy said her sister’s sacrifice, “just so I can feel better about myself ... is really humbling.”

With their blonde bobs, sparkling brown eyes and easy, engaging smiles, the twins are clearly mirror images of each other. Discovering breast cancer in identical twins isn’t unusual because of their exact genetic makeup, Song said. With twins, there’s also often a “mirroring effect,” with breast cancer developing in the opposite breast, he said. That’s what happened with McCarthy and Maurer.

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