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Photo: Ann Vasconcellos

Young Breast Cancer Survivor Shares her Story for National Cancer Survivors Day

Diagnosed at 31, Tomomi Arikawa is giving thanks to the BCRF-funded doctors that treated her by running in the Honolulu Marathon

Help Tomomi cross the finish line. Support her marathon today with a small or large donation. Every dollar counts! Learn more here.

Tomomi Arikawa remembers what her breast cancer tumor felt like: bubble wrap. She discovered it on her right breast five years ago.  It was an experience that appears to be hereditary. Both her mother and grandmother had been successfully treated for breast cancer years earlier. However unlike the other women in her family, Tomomi was just 31 years old when she was diagnosed.

Now nearly five years later, after undergoing several surgeries and chemotherapy, Tomomi shows no signs of the disease. She credits her recovery to the care she received from her physicians: Dr. Elisa Port, Chief of Breast Surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital and Dr. Clifford Hudis, Chief of the Breast Cancer Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Both belong to the BCRF family. Dr. Port is a BCRF grantee and Dr. Hudis is Chairman of the BCRF Scientific Advisory Board.

“They made me feel less alone,” Tomomi said referring to their candor, honesty and knowledge surrounding her diagnosis and treatment. “Even when my family had questions they were there to answer all of them. They made me feel stronger.”

To thank her family, friends, medical team and the research that led to her positive outcome, Tomomi has decided to run in the Honolulu Marathon on December 13, 2015. She will be raising funds for BCRF throughout her training. 

“It’s a way for me to contribute by saying I’m really grateful. I’m well enough psychologically and physically that I feel like I can run a marathon,” Tomomi said.

It wasn’t easy to arrive at this place, Tomomi said. Throughout her treatment, she struggled to fully absorb what she was going through.

“During chemo I felt numb,” Tomomi said. “In your mind you feel bad sharing your feelings with those close to you. My family was inundated with cancer. How much time could I spend saying, ‘I’m depressed, I’m so scared?’”

Therapy helped and so did coming to terms with the unknown. She tested negative for BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, genes that if present, are associated with a heightened risk of developing breast cancer, but with such a strong family history of the disease – she searched for some kind of explanation behind her diagnosis.

“There was a time when I wished my mom would say this came from her. It wasn’t about blaming anyone for it. I wasn’t mad because this isn’t something you can control. I just needed an explanation in my head,” Tomomi said. Later, she realized that this desire stemmed from how she wanted to cope with her cancer diagnosis.

“My mom dealt with her cancer with such strength and grace, I wanted her to say this came from her so I could cope in the same way,” Tomomi said.

Tomomi’s mother, Keiko, understands.  A cancer survivor herself, she watched her father succumb to the disease when she was 18 years old. Her mother also had breast cancer and was successfully treated, and later died of Alzheimer’s disease.

“I can list all the sad and hard things in my life but the worst, the saddest, was to see my daughter, Tomomi, go through cancer and its treatment,” Keiko said. “I was so sorry for her that she had to carry over my cancer gene and she was too young!”

While living with cancer had its share of challenges, adjusting to life post-treatment takes time.  

“I think once you survive something like this, you make a conscious decision to remove the negative people from your life,” Tomomi said. “You want to surround yourself with people who you know will always be by your side through thick and thin.”

To that end Tomomi began to reclaim her life after cancer. She started exercising– a pastime she abandoned during treatment.

“I remember my plastic surgeon told me that I had to follow doctor's orders and go back to the gym ASAP because that is all a part of the healing process,” Tomomi said. “I will never forget that because at that point I was just letting the cancer dictate my day-to-day activities without concentrating on my well being.”   

She started going to spin classes at SoulCycle where her instructors helped her get back in shape – both physically and mentally.

“I know it sounds insane but in my mind my body betrayed me by allowing cancer to have a party in my own body,” Tomomi said. “My instructors pushed my body physically and they have helped me to build my endurance back up.  More importantly, they helped me to gain confidence in my body again.”

And she recently decided to make a major life change. In October she left her job as a story editor at ABC News in New York and in May moved to Hawaii to be closer with her family. To train for the Honolulu Marathon, she works out almost every day and is back to running five to six miles a few times each week – her regular pace before her diagnosis.

“I faced the challenge of battling cancer, I think I can face the challenge of running a marathon.  That's why I decided to sign up for the Honolulu Marathon,” Tomomi said adding that she hopes her story will encourage others to get active and give back.

“The research being funded by BCRF will one day lead to a cure but until then, selfishly, I'm hoping that more and more breast cancer survivors like me will wake up one morning and say, ‘I love being alive, what the heck, I'm going to run a marathon.’"  

Help Tomomi cross the finish line. Support her marathon today with a small or large donation. Every dollar counts! Learn more here.

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