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For those living with cancer, a place to talk in Tokyo that’s neither home nor hospital

by

Contributing Writer

A diagnosis of cancer comes as a crushing blow not only to patients themselves but their families, too. Those around them have to tread lightly and watch their words on diet and therapy, for example. For those affected, it can feel as if the world they knew has shattered around them.

Every other Japanese person will experience life as a cancer patient at some point, according to Hitoshi Nakagama, president of the National Cancer Center Japan. Nearly 1 million people are newly diagnosed each year, and as Japan continues to age, the country can expect the proportion of the population affected by cancer to grow further.

In the district of Toyosu, Koto Ward, Maggie’s Tokyo helps those affected — the patients and those supporting them — accept the changes in lifestyle and relationships that accompany cancer, and to empower them to move forward at this difficult time in their lives.

Rather than a clinical atmosphere, the ambience at the center is one of calm and coziness. Floor-to-ceiling windows illuminate the polished wood floors and the shoji screen doors. Couches and comfortable chairs provide places where patients and their supporters can talk freely about their often painful journeys.

“They understand the deep sorrow and pain — pain that affects our family,” explains Taro, whose father has pancreatic cancer, at the center. “The biggest thing for me is that they care and listen, even on things that you might feel ashamed talking about. Men can also let out their feelings and even cry.”

He added that the cancer specialists at the center have helped not only his father but the whole family make informed decisions on treatment and how to move forward.

From Edinburgh to Tokyo

The first Maggie’s Centre opened in Edinburgh in 1996 following the death of Maggie Keswick Jencks.

In 1993, Keswick Jencks had been shocked to discover that her breast cancer — which she believed had gone — had returned and spread to other organs. She felt she had nowhere and no one to turn to for support outside the confines of her home and hospital. She wanted a facility that was like a friend’s home where she could talk to specialists who would listen and guide her on her path through treatment.

Her vision and belief that people should not “lose the joy of living in the fear of dying” has been kept alive by the Maggie Keswick Jencks Cancer Caring Centres Trust. There are now 20 Maggie’s Centres on the grounds of major government-run cancer hospitals in the U.K., as well as in Hong Kong, Barcelona and Tokyo. Maggie’s also has an online presence.

The Tokyo center was founded almost exactly a year ago by Masako Akiyama, a nurse who heads the facility together with Miho Suzuki, a TV reporter and cancer survivor.

The road to realizing Maggie’s Tokyo was not a smooth one. Whereas in the U.K. the centers are located within the grounds of hospitals, in Japan — where space is at a premium — this model proved impossible to replicate. In addition, Akiyama says, Japan lacks the U.K.’s charity culture. It therefore took 10 years from the first time she learned about Maggie’s to the moment Tokyo Maggie’s opened its doors.

Foreign residents are welcome at Maggie’s. People from Singapore, Taiwan and the U.S. have used the center’s services.

Recently, the center has been helping an American woman whose husband passed away a few months ago due to cancer, says Akiko Kimura, a 43-year-old nurse and cancer support specialist.

“She was shocked and devastated and needed a place to turn to,” says Kimura, who speaks fluent English. “We listened and gave her support, even phoning her every day to make sure she was OK. We also helped her fill out the endless number of papers that were in Japanese.”

Approximately 20 visitors pass through the center’s doors every day, seeking consultations with staff such as Tomoha Fukuchi, a clinical psychologist. No appointment is necessary — cancer patients, their family members and their friends are free to drop in at any time.

“I talk with them and try to stay with them while they find out what they want, what is important to them,” Fukuchi says. “I listen, or just sit quietly if they don’t want to talk. I try to create an atmosphere where they are treated as an important person.”

Fukuchi believes the ambience at the center also helps patients come to clear-minded decisions during the treatment process.

“These decisions give them the power that helps them not only through their cancer journey, but also when they face other life difficulties,” she adds.

Maggie’s needs your support

But for all that it has achieved in donations from businesses and the public — including the offer of a 3.5-meter-long slab of 300-year-old African cherrywood, which forms the table in the center’s main room — Maggie’s still faces problems.

Through the center in Tokyo is performing a valuable service, one that is unique in Japan, the future for the center is far from assured.

“We also need continued financial support, since we run the center on charity,” Kimura says. “Currently we rent the land, but only until 2020. Our challenge is to build a permanent center.”

The next few years will show whether the Japanese public will rise to the challenge and help Maggie’s become a permanent part of the Tokyo landscape, continuing to bring comfort and support to those stricken by this devastating condition.

Maggie’s: www.maggiescentres.org. Maggie’s Tokyo: maggiestokyo.org. Send your queries and comments to lifelines@japantimes.co.jp.