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I'm Too Young to Get Breast Cancer!

At 31, she learned she'd inherited the "family disease"—and then Tomomi Arikawa found an amazing way to fight it

WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Amy EngelerGood Housekeeping Magazine Logo

On September 2 of last year, Tomomi Arikawa left her office door open as she slipped out to her two o'clock sonogram appointment. She expected to return shortly — the imaging center was just across town from her office at ABC News, where she was a story editor for 20/20. At her gynecologist's urging, Tomomi was going to have a tender lump in her right breast checked out. The lump felt squishy, like a piece of Bubble Wrap, not like a hard kernel or a marble or any of the objects tumors were supposed to resemble, so she wasn't terribly worried. Besides, she was so young. "I was sure I'd be back in plenty of time to finish going through a stack of newspapers to look for story ideas," says Tomomi.

It was her first sonogram, and she lay calmly on the table as a technician moved the wand over her breast. "I heard a catch in her breath," Tomomi recalls. "She looked at me and said, 'This is routine. I'm going to call the doctor, and she is going to repeat what I just did.'"

Tomomi had hardly had time to consider what "routine" meant when the radiologist came into the room and began to move the wand, concentrating particularly on one area. "I won't lie to you," she said. "This doesn't look good."

"I knew she thought I had breast cancer," says Tomomi — "like my mother and grandmother." She was stunned, as if a huge rock had fallen on her. "I always expected to get the disease. But not at 31." Her grandmother, Shizuka Okura, had been in her 60s when she was diagnosed, and her mother, Keiko, had been 48.

The doctor showed Tomomi to a private room while she waited for a biopsy to be performed immediately. It was only when she dialed her parents that she dissolved into tears. "Don't worry, I'll be right there," her mom said. "Just give me the address." The address? Tomomi couldn't remember where she was. She stumbled down the hallway, sobbing, looking for someone to tell her. Back in the waiting room, she thought about her mother. "I felt I had let her down. I was born four years after my parents had lost a newborn son, and all they'd ever wanted was for me to be healthy and happy." Tomomi also worried about her younger sister, Miyuki, then 27. What if she gets cancer, too?

For the biopsy, the radiologist used a needle to extract five tissue samples. Afterward, she tried to reassure Tomomi, telling her how treatable it would be if it was "something," but the words just floated around the room. Then a nurse brought Keiko in, "with a look on her face I'd never seen before: extreme worry and guilt and fear," recalls Tomomi. "That was the beginning of it — I don't think she smiled again for two months." The next day, when they learned that the tumor was definitely malignant, was even tougher. At roughly two centimeters (about the size of a grape), the cancer pressed against her skin — that was the sore spot Tomomi could feel.

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