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
The results of Tomomi's mastectomy
Although Tomomi wasn't planning on going to any nude beaches, she did worry about the appearance of her breast after the mastectomy. Her plastic surgeon had placed a tissue expander under the skin to stretch it. She knew that it could look misshapen, and she wouldn't complete the breast reconstruction — when the expander is removed and an implant put in — for several months. Tomomi planned to take her first look at home, "so I could freak out in private."
"I really loved my breasts," she says. "To me, they were just right — not too big or small." But as Dr. Kolker was changing the dressing the next morning, he said nonchalantly, "Here, take a look. Tell me what you think." Tomomi hesitated at first, then glanced down. "I didn't feel sad or disgusted or anything," she says. "Obviously, I had no nipple. But I thought it looked amazing."
Assuming the worst was over, the whole family accompanied Tomomi to her one-week follow-up appointment with Dr. Port. As they sat down in front of the doctor's large desk, she explained that a closer look at one of the lymph nodes removed during surgery had revealed some malignant cells after all. This meant the cancer had left the breast. Tomomi had Stage IIB cancer, with an 81% five-year survival rate (without node involvement, the survival rate would have been about 90%). Though not all cases require it, in this instance Dr. Port recommended a second surgery to remove the remainder of the lymph nodes from Tomomi's right armpit. "Sign me up!" Tomomi said, with her usual pluckiness. But she struggled to hold back tears. "I heard my dad take a breath, and my mom was about to start bawling. I kept thinking, I have to hold it together," she recalls.
That night, she couldn't sleep. The lymph node involvement upset her more than the original diagnosis had. "For the first time, I realized I could die from this cancer," she says.
In this dark mood, she worried about her future. The next day, she saw a psychiatrist to deal with her distress. "She helped me figure out what I needed to be thinking about — whether having children was a big thing for me or not, for example — and I felt more in control," says Tomomi.
The second surgery went smoothly, and six weeks later, the egg-harvesting cycle yielded 29 eggs to be frozen. Tomomi, who'd taken a leave from her job for the surgery, returned to work in early December. But there were more challenges ahead, including a rough four months of chemotherapy. Sometimes, as she lay on the bathroom floor, overcome with nausea, her sister sat outside in the hallway to be close. The immune-boosting injections Tomomi received caused bone and muscle pain so intense she couldn't stand to be touched, even accidentally. "I thought about how hard it was for my family to watch me," says Tomomi. "They felt helpless."