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
Making heart-wrenching decisions continued...
Given her family's disease pattern, with breast cancer striking earlier in each generation, Tomomi wanted to be aggressive with treatment — more aggressive, it turned out, than some of the breast surgeons she interviewed over the next couple of weeks. She sat quietly as one talked to her about nipple preservation, assuring her that he could make her breast look good enough afterward to be seen at a nude beach. She was having none of it. "I just wanted to get rid of all the tissue that could be a problem," she says. "Besides, I don't go to nude beaches!"
When she met Dr. Port at Mount Sinai, Tomomi immediately liked her. "I don't know if you can print this, but she seemed like a badass — she exuded a lot of confidence, but was never cocky. Her attitude was always, 'We're going to work this out together.' I immediately felt, If it's me against cancer, I want her in that foxhole with me."
Tomomi decided to undergo a single mastectomy, unable to wrap her mind around removing both breasts at once. Dr. Port had discussed that as an option, and if Tomomi's gene test had been positive, she would have encouraged her to consider the double surgery, she says. Dr. Port did urge Tomomi to meet with experts in fertility preservation in case the chemo set off early menopause.
When a former colleague at ABC who'd had breast cancer at the age of 27 had suggested egg storage, Tomomi had rejected the idea. I was just diagnosed with cancer and now I need to think about having children? she thought. Plus, she worried about the ethics of it. "My grandmother and mom clearly didn't know about the cancer when they had children — no one can fault them," she explains. "But I couldn't see myself having kids, knowing I might be passing this on."
Dr. Port was reassuring. "There will be better treatment by the time your kids are in their 20s," she told Tomomi. She also reminded her that pregnancy was at least five years away. Because the cancer was estrogen-positive, Tomomi would be taking estrogen-suppressing tamoxifen for five years, which reduces the risk of recurrence by up to 50%. Tomomi was persuaded; after the mastectomy, she'd undergo one cycle of hormone treatment to harvest and freeze her eggs.
Tomomi and her family arrived at Mount Sinai for the surgery on October 5. The operation was at three o'clock, and two and a half hours later, waking from the anesthesia, Tomomi felt surprisingly normal and relieved. "It's over?" she asked. "Thank you," she said to Dr. Port and her plastic surgeon, Adam Kolker, M.D. And there was good news: The OR exam of her sentinel lymph node, which signals whether the cancer has spread to other nodes, showed it to be free of malignant cells.
Miyuki never left her sister's room — and, the first night, didn't sleep at all in case Tomomi needed her. She played music on her iPad that they both liked, especially the song "Chances" from the movie The Blind Side. She also took messages and answered the stream of e-mails from Tomomi's friends and coworkers. But Miyuki kept the mood light: "This is the only time in your life I'm going to be your personal assistant," she teased. "Don't count on it lasting."