Things were looking good for Chiaki Hara at the start of 2005. She was an accomplished actress, having starred in the 1997 tragic romance “Shitsurakuen” (“Lost Paradise”) and 2002′ drama “Aiki,” and her profile as a social commentator was also on the rise. Then, at the age of 30, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
After undergoing surgery to remove part of her womb she went back to work, but sadly had a recurrence four years later that meant having to undergo a total hysterectomy.
It was a harrowing time for the former “Clarion Girl,” but rather than letting the illness defeat her she decided to do something positive and in 2011 formed Yotsuba no Kai, a volunteer organization aimed at supporting young women who, like her, have been affected by cancer.
“When the doctor first told me the news I couldn’t properly comprehend what I was hearing,” the now 41-year-old tells The Japan Times. “I was young and the thought of getting cancer never entered my mind. After the initial shock I then lost all sense of time, and before I knew it, there was a huge decision to make regarding my treatment.
“At that point, I was unmarried and at some stage wanted children. The surgery my doctor recommended ruled out that possibility, but at the same time I didn’t want to put my life at risk.”
Hara was told by her mother that her grandmother had died from cervical cancer at the age of 34.
“I had all these thoughts running through my head,” she continues. “I had pretty much decided to have the operation to remove my womb, but then suddenly had a change of heart.”
Instead she underwent cervical conization, a short surgical procedure that removes a cone-shaped piece of tissue from the cervix, preserving the patient’s chances of having children. Hara kept the illness from the public, only informing her family, management and a small circle of friends.
Wanting to put her troubles to one side and move on with her life as normal, she soon returned to the entertainment industry after a short break. Despite concerns about her body, she says she avoided check-ups as she was afraid of what might be detected. In 2009, her worst fears were realized when it was discovered that the cancer had come back and developed into endometrial cancer. She was told she would die without surgery to remove her womb.
“Following the treatment my hair started to fall out, there was swelling and I started to gain weight so I couldn’t hide the illness anymore,” she says. “Getting it out in the open was actually a relief. Of course that was a tough period in my life, but also a happy one. I got married 10 months after the operation.
“It wasn’t a decision we could take lightly because it affected not only the two of us but also his family. I felt really guilty about not being able to conceive and with him being the eldest son I was worried about his family name. Fortunately they accepted the situation and he has been like a rock throughout, encouraging me all the way.”
The support the Hokkaido-born star received from her husband, close friends and relatives, helped her cope with the ordeal, yet at times she still felt alone. Looking back, she says one of her big regrets was shutting others out and not speaking to young women who were in the same boat.
“In the first few years, I didn’t appreciate how valuable it could be to share experiences with people who really understood what I was going through,” Hara says. “Being a sensitive topic it’s not something you want to shout from the rooftops about or anything, but it can be really helpful to get things off your chest. Speaking to friends isn’t the same because they can’t empathize as much. I therefore wanted to create an environment where women could speak openly about their illness with other women in similar situations.”
Hara began by creating this kind of space on her blog, which became a forum for cancer survivors. She wrote about her battle with the illness and women around the country responded in kind with their own stories. She replied to each one, yet felt that still wasn’t enough.
“I needed to meet them face to face, look them in the eye and hear their true feelings,” she says. “That’s why I started Yotsuba no Kai.”
The organization, which was established in the summer of 2011, now has more than 500 members. It is mainly for women in their 20s, 30s and mid-40s with cervical, ovarian or breast cancer.
“We arrange meetings and social gatherings,” Hara says. “The women can say what’s on their minds, discuss the best medicines, doctors and so on. At the parties there isn’t really any talk about cancer or anything. It’s a chance for them to have some fun and release stress. Being around people who have been through something similar can be really comforting.”
As well as organizing various events, Hara often gives speeches, telling audiences about her own experience and encouraging young women to go for regular check-ups. In Japan, more than 9,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually, with around 3,000 dying from the disease every year. It’s the second most common cancer in women aged between 15 and 44, yet less than 40 percent of the recommended age group are screened here, compared with an average of around 60 percent for other OECD countries. The statistics for breast cancer screenings are similar.
“The situation in Japan has improved a lot over the past decade,” Hara says. “Awareness has grown and the number of women going for check-ups has increased. There are many TV shows with well-known celebrities talking about these issues, which encourages young girls to go and see their doctors. Another positive is that since 2009 there has been a free coupon program for cervical and breast cancer screening.
“This is all great, but there’s a long way to go and Japan is still behind most developed countries. Many young women get the coupon in the post and just throw it away. We need to continue educating them, emphasizing the importance of regular check-ups. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs since 2005, yet I will always regret not being able to have children. If I had gone for a screening test earlier there is a possibility this could have been avoided. You only have one body. It is precious so make sure you look after it. If I could go back in time that is what I would tell myself.”
For more information on Yostuba no Kai, visit www.yotsuba-kai.com.