MOUNT KOYA, WAKAYAMA PREF. – A year ago I visited a doctor in Tokyo and heard the words nobody wants to hear: “You have breast cancer.”
These words are crushing in any language. As an American living in Japan, however, there was an additional twinge of anxiety as to how I would deal with my diagnosis in this foreign country.
My husband, Julien, and I came to Tokyo in 2017. Though we spoke no Japanese, we were committed to embracing uncertainty and a home here. But facing cancer was an unexpected and unwelcome challenge.
At first I thought little of it, a lump in my breast. I thought breast cancer was unlikely as more than 80 percent of such lumps are benign and there was no history of breast cancer in my family. Besides, I was only 34 and women aren’t advised to get mammograms until they’re 45.
I then came across a poignant picture for Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October) in my email inbox, and my parents, who are health professionals, encouraged me to get it checked out.
So I walked down the street to the National Center for Global Health and Medicine in Shinjuku to see a breast surgeon. The process was remarkably efficient and he ran all the tests — ultrasound, mammogram, CT scan and biopsy — in one day.
When we went back to hear the test results, our worst fear was confirmed. A nurse explained what was happening through an interpreter, and I felt the floor begin to spin, my chest tighten and tears stream down my face. Emotions came in waves — shock, sadness, stress … and, in moments, even strength.
I was also touched by the medical staff’s genuine effort to communicate and provide compassionate, cutting-edge care. So much so that I decided to stay and receive my treatment in Japan.
A month later, I had a mastectomy with lymph node dissection and it has been a long and winding road since: eight preserved embryos, genetic testing, 18 rounds of chemotherapy, 25 radiotherapy sessions, hormone therapy and all of the accompanying side-effects.
I’m blessed to have family who flew in from afar to support me, and Julien by my side. When strands of my hair began falling out, Julien shaved my head and then both he and my brother went bald with me. Our motto is, “Together, we will grow back.”
Being in Japan has let me see aspects to this experience that all the TV cancer dramas I’ve seen overseas could have never prepared me for: the cutest outpatient ward in the world with calming pink curtains, origami, zen coloring books, silence and isolation.
It’s common to feel alone, but I have found the support of a community in Japan: Sake Lovers, who raised funds for the Pink Ribbon Campaign; a team of friends who ran the Run for the Cure; and Pink Ring, which supports young women using yoga.
I’ve learned a lot from the journey. I’m reminded of the shortness and fragility of life and, somehow, that helps me let go of anxiety and anger and find strength. I’ve realized the significance of self-care and self-breast exams, especially in young women who might overlook the symptoms.
I’m on a mission to heal, inside and out, to fill up my cup with nourishment and knowledge, so that I may become whole again and give back in the best way possible.
Now that much of my treatment is done, and in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’ve started a fundraiser called “Kumano Kodo for a Cure.” From Oct. 22 to 27, I am walking the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route in the Kii Peninsula — the sister pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago in Europe, which I walked four years ago — in solidarity with the adolescents and young adults who are currently on their cancer journey.
After consulting with my oncologist, I chose to forward all contributions to the AYA Oncology Alliance. Of the approximately 1 million people newly diagnosed with cancer each year in Japan, roughly 20,000 are aged between 15 and 39.
Although cancer diagnosis and treatment have a tremendous impact on our lives, not enough attention is given to early detection or the unique anxieties that young people with cancer face, such as how treatment can disrupt school, work, fertility and relationships at a time when we should be going after our dreams with momentum.
Cancer might temporarily slow us down, but it doesn’t have to stop us. The AYA Oncology Alliance hopes to help young people thrive with and beyond cancer. Donations will enhance clinical activities, promote research, and raise awareness.
I ask that you see my pilgrimage as a symbol of the journey of all young people who go through cancer, and I welcome you to walk alongside us.
To help Julia Marino on her journey, visit syncable.biz/campaign/683.