Breast cancer patients and family members gather in a room on the 10th floor of Tokyo Kyosai Hospital to sit down and share their troubles, while Kaori Osawa, a medical social worker, acts as moderator and answers questions.
“When I first told my children that their mother may not live long, they became scared. But now, they’ve gotten used to that,” one of the patients said.
Those with severe conditions also take part in the sessions in Meguro Ward, but the conversations take an upbeat tone — even when serious issues are raised that require the intervention of Osawa, 46.
“I can ask questions to Ms. Osawa that I can’t ask doctors,” said a 50-year-old female patient. “She is bright and wouldn’t try to meddle too much in my affairs. I become relieved when I see her.”
The energetic attitude of Osawa, who herself has suffered breast cancer and whose husband committed suicide, serves to encourage the patients.
Born in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Osawa lived in New York from the time she was a fourth-grader in elementary school to her third year of junior high school.
She attended high school in Japan, but when she was a senior she became ill with kidney trouble and had to be hospitalized for four months.
That meant her school attendance record was insufficient for her to graduate. Instead, she passed a national exam for students who don’t have a high school diploma and entered Sophia University in Tokyo.
After graduating, she went on to become a medical social worker, helping patients and their families with medical- and daily life-related problems, because she wanted to help those suffering as much as she did.
It was in September 2003 that she found out she had breast cancer, while she was pursuing her career at Tokyo Kyosai Hospital. She was only 36.
In Japan, 1 in 2 people are estimated to develop cancer during their lifetime, and female patients raising children are on the rise. According to the National Cancer Center, the percentage of women in their 20s through 40s who develop cancer is higher than that seen in male patients.
Meanwhile, the number of breast cancer patients has shot up over the past 30 years, peaking among those in their late 40s, and there has also been an increased incidence of uterus cancer in women in their 20s and early 30s.
For those patients, balancing treatment with their daily responsibilities, including child-rearing, work and taking care of elderly parents, becomes a major issue. Even if they want to keep working, many are forced to quit because of the side effects of the treatment. In some cases, they become stressed because they feel they aren’t taking good enough care of their children, who naturally experience a huge amount of stress from a parent’s illness.
Osawa’s treatment was successful, but she suffered a different tragedy two years later: When she returned home one day, she found her husband, who had been suffering from depression, had hanged himself in their home. Osawa still weeps when she recalls the experience, and says that, amid her own thoughts of suicide at the time, it was torture to continue receiving treatment.
She continued working at the hospital, but she, too, became deeply depressed. She recalls purging her cellphone of the phone numbers and contact addresses of friends who seemed to be leading happy lives. And when she saw an 85-year-old widow grieving the death of a 90-year-old male patient one day, she grumbled to herself that he had lived long enough — unlike her late husband.
But time eventually healed Osawa, who said she began to feel up to talking about her ordeal on a support website for wives whose husbands had committed suicide.
“People say that sadness is something you need to overcome, but I actually think it’s something you need to live with,” said Osawa. “It doesn’t disappear but it will, hopefully, be small enough not to affect your everyday life.”
When she took part in a session in the U.S. for those who had lost loved ones, she said a lecturer told her that “the reason your husband died was because he wanted you to pursue this path.”
Osawa suddenly felt as if her husband were near her. “He didn’t abandon me. He was taken away because of the illness,” she remembers thinking.
That mindset filled her with renewed optimism and energy.
In 2007, two years after her husband’s death, she was promoted to the hospital’s newly established post of counselor for cancer patients. Osawa opened a salon for breast cancer patients the following year, believing they needed a place to talk about issues only they could relate to and understand.
Talking about death is not taboo in the sessions, including when to stop chemotherapy or where participants want to die. If someone begins discussing these topics, it prompts the others to think about what they would do if the time came, she said.
When a patient laments about not being able to see a child grow up, Osawa responds: “Even if you physically pass away, I feel that you can still come by and watch them. It won’t be an eternal goodbye.
“The border of death and life is thin,” she said.
At present, Osawa is holding meetings to help children whose parents are being treated for cancer. She got the idea after the daughter of one of her friends, who died from cancer, told her she felt lonely growing up because she didn’t know anybody who had gone through the same experience.
To help such children, Osawa utilizes a program established in the United States.
Expressing anger, fear and confusion through arts and crafts and learning about the illness helps, she said. For instance, a 9-year-old girl who had become violent at school calmed down after she joined the hospital’s program, Osawa said.
In the future, she hopes to expand the program for children.
Back at Tokyo Kyosai Hospital, a statue of an angel made of glass, a present given to Osawa from a former group member, sits on one of the windowsills.
“When I look at the statue, it reminds me of things we can’t see but are important — love, the fact that we are all connected and that my husband is looking over me,” Osawa said.