Breast-cancer survivor Tami Agassi now helps other women fight the disease
Seattle Times staff reporter
Tami Agassi's courage comes in waves.
Faced with the possibility that she might have breast cancer at 30, she became her own assertive advocate, asking doctors to take a second look at her mammogram results, which may have saved her life.
But Agassi, a Seattle resident who is sister to tennis star Andre Agassi, could not face her family head-on with the results. She shied from the emotions.
She aggressively attacked her disease, opting for a double mastectomy though the odds were not high that the cancer would occur in her other breast.
But when it came to spending long hours in chemotherapy, she found she couldn't face it alone. She relied on a "chemo train" of friends to keep her company.
Now her bravery shines again.
Fit and healthy at 32, with a very good chance of remaining so, she's shedding her privacy to draw attention to the Schick Xtreme III Tennis Challenge, a fund-raiser for breast cancer to be played at KeyArena Oct. 7.
A half dozen of the top names in tennis will be here, including Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Seattle's Jonathan Stark and Martina Navratilova, all forgoing their customary $75,000 to $100,000 fees.
With a sellout for the Oct. 7 matches likely and tickets to an Oct. 6 $10,000-a-table player's party already wait-listed, the event is expected to bring in well over $1 million. Every penny will go to the University of Washington Medical Center's Breast Care and Cancer Research Center, thanks, in large part, to Tami Agassi's business savvy and connections.
Throw in another million or more from today's Komen Seattle Race for the Cure at Safeco Field and that's a lot of attention for a disease that researchers felt was largely ignored until the Komen Foundation started a groundswell of support in the early 1990s.
A bigger game
Traditionally, tennis is not a big draw in Seattle. The UW's breast-care center once sold out a much smaller version of this event, making $75,000, but tennis does not fill KeyArena.
Or, it didn't.
When Agassi signed on as honorary chair in the midst of her own treatment — spurred on by the fact that her mother also was diagnosed — it was "a miracle for us," said Claire Gill, manager of the breast-cancer program at the UW.
Here was someone whose own story tells the importance of early detection, being your own advocate, enlisting family help and the fact that 30 is not too young to be concerned about breast cancer.
Here was someone bright-eyed and appealing, with business acumen from directing sports charity foundations and development for a now-defunct Seattle dot-com.
And then there was Tami's famous brother, Andre Agassi.
Among her strict rules when she agreed to be honorary chair was that she would not ask her brother, a seven-time Grand Slam tournament winner, to participate.
"I could be honorary chair of every event in Seattle if I asked Andre to be involved," she said.
But when she watched everyone else — including Seattle pro Jonathan Stark, whose mother also was fighting breast cancer — enlist every connection they had, she lost her resolve and gained a caring boost.
"Let-me-think-about-this-yes!" her protective younger brother told her. "Anything you want, Tami, anything."
A longtime competitor
All of Tami Agassi's life shaped the way she fought breast cancer, she says — and most of that life was steeped in tennis.
She was the only one of four Agassi siblings not to turn pro, though she was a ranked player who went to Texas A&M on a tennis scholarship.
Her family moved to Las Vegas for the sun so they could play tennis, encouraged by their Iranian-born father, Mike, who was a four-time Golden Gloves winner in boxing. They had their own training camp and practiced twice a day in the summer.
So it was not too surprising that Agassi's first instinct when she was diagnosed was to rush the net on the attack.
"Tami is kind of like a spitfire," her soft-spoken mother, Elizabeth "Betty" Agassi, said by phone from Las Vegas. "When certain things need to be done, there is no waiting around. She's on the ball to make things happen."
Tami Agassi's doctor was not alarmed when Tami found a hard marble shape in her breast through self exam in January 2000.
The odds of a woman 30 or under getting the disease are 1 in 2,525 said Gill of the UW's breast-cancer center.
Anyone who has multiple relatives with breast cancer should get genetic counseling, Gill said. But at that point, there was no such history in the Agassi family.
Agassi's primary-care physician sent her for a mammogram and ultrasound. But the radiologist told Agassi there was a 98 percent chance the lump was benign. She could have it biopsied or have it removed, but the radiologist seemed fine with waiting and watching and so did Agassi's physician, she said.
But Agassi wasn't.
"I thought, 'You know, there's something in me that wasn't there before and I think I'd like to pursue it.'"
So her physician sent her to another specialist who took one look at the results and had a completely different response. The lump was almost certainly cancerous, he told her. Skip the biopsy, get it out this week.
The family pulls together
With only that information, told to her bluntly over the phone, Agassi went directly home from work and sobbed all night.
She knew nothing about breast cancer. When she could calm herself long enough, she called friends, learning from one that she would have to go through chemotherapy.
She wanted contact with her family but didn't want to tell them until she could answer their questions. So she called her older sister Rita and tried to ask nonchalantly about someone she knew who'd had breast implants.
Her sister didn't fall for it.
"You really can't be nonchalant when it comes to cancer," Agassi says.
Word spread quickly through the family, finally reaching the emotional Andre in Zimbabwe, where he was playing in the Davis Cup.
He searched for the best medical help, but Tami grew convinced the best was right here in Seattle. Today, in fact, she works for her oncologist, Saul Rivkin, at the Marsha Rivkin Center for Ovarian Cancer Research, where she directs planning and fund-raising.
Agassi still feels the more radical approach to treatment was the right decision for her. "There is no right way or wrong way to approach it, but for me it became really clear that life was my No. 1 priority," Agassi said.
"I wasn't afraid to make sacrifices or face the results. I knew that having a double mastectomy wasn't going to kill me, but that cancer could."
Another battle in their midst
Her mother's approach to the disease was different.
Agassi was still in treatment when her mother told her she had a breast infection and "mass" that was probably nothing.
That was not good enough for Tami. She called her brother Phillip in Las Vegas and asked him to go with their mother to the doctor. Make sure the hard questions get asked, she said.
Her mother's doctors found an earlier mammogram that showed the mass, then small, had been missed the year before. It turned out to be cancerous.
"They always have to push me," Betty Agassi said.
Tami and her mother's treatment have been successful. Jonathan Stark's mother, Janet, is also doing well. The tennis event is dedicated to the two older women.
But the near-misses in diagnosis in her own family reinforce for Agassi the fact that women have to watch out for themselves.
There are studies going on at the UW's breast-cancer center and elsewhere on the effectiveness of new digital mammography and other screening methods.
"But for now, mammograms and early detection are still the best we have to save lives," Gill said. That includes self-examination and yearly visits for a physician's exam.
Women have lumpy breasts, said Agassi. It can be very confusing. That's why it's important to get to know your own breast tissue so you can detect change.
Tami Agassi's cancer had already spread to a lymph node. She wonders what her future would be if she'd waited another six months or a year.
Diagnosis is still a human science and subjective, Agassi said.
"It's the best that we have and thank God we have it because it saved my life. But we have a lot more that we need to learn about this disease."
Sherry Stripling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2520.