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Research Is the Reason We Survived

By BCRF | June 18, 2024

Mother and daughter Keiko and Tomomi share how breast cancer has impacted their family—and how research made all the difference

After noticing a spot in her right breast that felt like bubble wrap, Tomomi Arikawa went to get an ultrasound at her gynecologist’s urging. Her doctor knew that Tomomi had a family history of breast cancer, so she thought this would give Tomomi peace of mind.

On the table, as the radiologist and ultrasound technician moved the wand over the area again and again, reality started to set in for Tomomi. This was probably breast cancer.

Tomomi was, unfortunately, very familiar with the disease that had impacted two generations of women in her family already. Tomomi would be the third.

The radiologist didn’t mince words that the area in Tomomi’s breast was suspicious and got her ready for a mammogram and biopsy. While Tomomi waited, she called her mother, Keiko. For the two-time breast cancer survivor, she still remembers the moment vividly 13 years later.

“Tomomi called me and said, ‘Mom please come in. I’m at the hospital and was just diagnosed,’” Keiko said. “Everything went blank. I went straight to Tomomi. I hugged her and just cried. It was harder than my own diagnoses.”

Keiko was first diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 48. At the time, Tomomi was in college and her younger sister, Miyuki, was in high school. Keiko’s father had passed away from colon cancer after being diagnosed in his mid-40s, and her mother had been treated for breast cancer in her 60s (she lived to be 85). When she learned she had breast cancer, she was not only scared and uncertain, but felt as though “it was my turn.”

Keiko had stage 1 hormone receptor (HR)–positive breast cancer and was successfully treated with a lumpectomy and radiation. After, she started on hormone therapy to prevent recurrence and began more frequent screening because she was high-risk.

“I thought, ‘Great. Maybe this won’t be like my father. Maybe I have a second chance,’” she said.

Devastatingly, two years later at a routine ultrasound, the radiologist caught a small spot in the other breast that would turn out to be another, totally different breast cancer. This one was triple-negative (TNBC), a form that tends to be more aggressive and that, unlike HR-positive breast cancer, lacks many targeted treatment options. Keiko was again able to be treated with a lumpectomy and radiation.

“Because I was taking tamoxifen, I thought I was doing prevention, but then my doctors said it was a different kind of cancer that the tamoxifen wouldn’t have been targeting,” Keiko said. “The doctor explained that even though it was aggressive, I would be fine because it was caught early. I was shocked, but I knew I would be OK.”

Given her significant family history, breast cancer was top of mind for Tomomi. She and her doctor had discussed starting screening early at 40—though, unfortunately, not early enough because Tomomi was 31 when she was diagnosed. Tomomi’s cancer was stage 2B and, like her mother’s first diagnosis, HR-positive.

For Tomomi, whose cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, treatment was more intense than her mother’s: a mastectomy, fertility treatments, and chemotherapy. The latter was especially difficult, making her extremely nauseous and in pain. Her tight-knit family helped her get through it all, and Keiko sat with Tomomi in the chemo suite.

“I felt bad for my doctors because I arrived with a circus of people at all my appointments,” Tomomi joked.

After their experiences with breast cancer, both Keiko, who was born in Japan, and Tomomi found purpose in connecting with others. Keiko started a nonprofit that hosted educational events and support groups for Japanese and Japanese-American women diagnosed with the disease, and Tomomi shared her story in the media and at events, including in Japan.

Tomomi and Keiko also became ardent BCRF supporters and fundraisers—drawn to the Foundation’s singular focus on funding research.

“We are really grateful, and we are here today because of research,” Keiko said. “All the treatments and medication, research made those possible for us.”

Both women have tested negative for known gene mutations associated with breast cancer risk, though there is likely a hereditary component to their diagnoses that just hasn’t been discovered yet. Tomomi said she wants to see research eradicate breast cancer so that her sister, Miyuki, is never diagnosed and so that Miyuki’s sons never have to “go through life for even a second thinking they could get breast cancer” either.

“I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for research. My mother wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for research. My grandmother wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for research,” Tomomi said. “Research is the only way to cure breast cancer, and I trust BCRF wholeheartedly.”