Right now there’s a commercial on TV for the American insurance company AFLAC featuring veteran journalist Shuntaro Torigoe, who was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. It shows the 67-year-old reporter in what looks like home videos undergoing tests, or about to be operated on, or clowning around with his grown daughter. The voiceover mentions that he is still working while receiving treatment, and at the end of the ad the reporter himself says, “If you try to run away from cancer, you’ll be scared of everything.”
This message could be taken two ways: Either fight your cancer with all that’s medically available or confront it as something you have to live with. Since the statement is in an advertisement for a company that offers supplemental hospitalization insurance for cancer patients, most likely the former implication is the intended one, but the commercial doesn’t make a hard or sentimental sell. For once, the adorable AFLAC animatronic duck does not appear.
In a recent article in the tabloid Sankei Sports, Torigoe said he did the commercial because he wanted people to know that he has lived a normal life since he was first found to have rectal cancer. The reader may want to take this admission with a grain of salt given what has happened in the meantime. Surgery in October 2005 eliminated the first tumor, but a year later stage-four cancer was discovered in Torigoe’s left lung and this summer a nonmalignant tumor was found in the right one.
During a recent appearance on TV Asahi’s “Super Morning,” Torigoe apologized for hiding the spread of his cancer and said that he had no intention of “fooling anybody.” It was an odd thing to say since his initial diagnosis was widely reported, and basically it’s nobody’s business what he’s gone through since then. But Torigoe is not just a public figure, he’s a journalist, and, according to his own professional code, he must be open and truthful about everything, even his personal life.
Torigoe’s actions follow a trend. Though cancer is still a dreaded ailment, it no longer carries quite the stigma it did as recently as 10 years ago, when doctors in Japan were still withholding prognoses from patients. Much of this change has been market-driven. Insurance providers and drug makers have elevated the profile of cancer into a fact of life. Fuji Film runs ads urging women to have periodic breast examinations and Olympus does the same with regard to colon cancer checks. Both companies manufacture medical equipment, presumably to check for signs of malignancy.
To some this may sound cynical, but such commercial developments can’t help but foster a more realistic attitude toward the disease itself. This attitude was summed up in an essay by another cancer-stricken journalist, Tetsuya Chikushi, in the June 15 issue of Shukan Kinyobi.
In May, Chikushi announced on TBS’s “News 23,” which he anchors, that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer and would be leaving the show indefinitely. In the essay, he says that since the diagnosis he has come to view his cancer not so much with fear but with “interest.” For one thing, the amount of general literature on the subject is vast, and vastly diverse. “Treatment that was generally considered common sense 10 years ago,” he writes, “is now looked upon by some people with skepticism.”
The 72-year-old Chikushi says that the first advice he received when he was diagnosed was to get a “second opinion.” Then there is the relatively new concept of “informed consent.” He has signed numerous consent forms for check-ups as well as for treatment, a development that prompted him to make an analogy. “In a democracy there are many options based on many opinions,” he writes. “And voters are given adequate information so that they may choose.”
The difference with cancer is that the choice may have a life-or-death aspect to it. With more options comes greater deliberation, and eventually it may no longer be a taboo to discuss the option of not seeking treatment. In the 1990s, Dr. Makoto Kondo, a radiologist, was thoroughly demonized by the Japanese medical establishment for a book in which he theorized that radical surgery and chemotherapy were either ineffective or more dangerous than the disease itself. Though Kondo remains persona non grata for advising cancer patients not to fight the disease, the greater social acceptance of the hospice model and a more open utilization of pain-killers show that terminal care is slowly coming out of the shadows.
But there’s another side effect to this liberalizing trend. Now that Torigoe has come clean about the extent of his illness, he seems to have gained greater visibility. Last month he hosted a TV special about beloved song lyricist Yu Aku, who died in August, and also interviewed kabuki star Matsumoto Koshiro about his role as the doomed bureaucrat in a TV dramatization of the classic Akira Kurosawa movie “Ikiru.” Both Aku and the “Ikiru” character succumbed to cancer, so these assignments obviously exploited Torigoe’s own experience with the disease, but that’s fine with him. “When I was diagnosed,” he said on “Super Morning,” “I looked at it as a valuable journalistic opportunity.” One of those opportunities is writing newspaper advertorials for AFLAC.
He isn’t the only person to get a boost from his illness. Last year, comedian Kuniko Yamada appeared on the medical variety show “Takeshi’s Truly Frightening Home Medicine” and learned how to give herself a breast examination. She did so and discovered a lump, which was later found to be malignant. Sometime later she appeared on the same show and announced she had undergone treatment. Yamada’s star had been in eclipse since the end of the 1990s, but suddenly she’s in demand again. Cancer may kill you, but it can also do wonders for your career.