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100 Women 2016: Kokoro - the cancer blog gripping Japan

Mao Kobayashi Image copyright Mao Kobayashi

In Japan, people rarely talk about cancer. You usually only hear about someone's battle with the disease when they either beat it or die from it, but 34-year-old newsreader Mao Kobayashi decided to break the mould with a blog - now the most popular in the country - about her illness and how it has changed her perspective on life.

Two years ago, when I was 32, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My daughter was three, my son was only one. I thought: "It'll be OK because I can go back to being how I was before once the cancer is treated and cured." But it wasn't that easy and I still have cancer in my body.

For a long time I hid the disease. Because my job involved appearing on TV I was scared about being associated with illness or showing people my weaknesses. I would try to avoid being seen on the way to hospital appointments and I stopped communicating with people so as not to be found out.

But while wanting to go back to who I was before, I was actually moving more and more towards the shadows, becoming far removed from the person I wanted to be. After living like that for 20 months, my palliative treatment doctor said something that changed my mind.

"Don't hide behind cancer," she said, and I realised what had happened. I was using it as an excuse not to live any more.

An unmentionable illness

Image copyright Mao Kobayashi

The BBC's Mariko Oi writes: Kobayashi (pictured above during her newscaster days) is not alone in Japan in wanting to hide having cancer. It's a country where people are often reluctant to talk about any personal issues with others, let alone serious illness. When a tabloid newspaper reported about her illness as a scoop, many saw it as an intrusion of her privacy and it caused an outrage. Her husband, Kabuki star Ebizo Ichikawa, held a press conference and begged the media to let them carry on with their lives. So Kobayashi's decision to start writing a blog three months later surprised many, including some in her family. But her regular updates about things such as how she is determined to attend her children's kindergarten athletic festival have been inspiring not only those who are also fighting cancer but many others.

I had been blaming myself and thinking of myself as a "failure" for not being able to live as I had before. I was hiding behind my pain.

Until that time I had been obsessed with being involved in every part of domestic life because that was how my own mother always behaved. But as I got ill, I couldn't do anything, let alone everything, and in the end, as I was hospitalised, I had to leave my children.

When I was forced to let go of this obsession to be the perfect mother - which used to torture me, body and soul - I realised it had not been worth all the sacrifice I had made.

My family - even though I couldn't cook for them or drop them off and pick them up at the kindergarten - still accepted me, believed in me and loved me, just like they always had done, as a wife and a mother.

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So I decided to step out into the sunlight and write a blog, called Kokoro, about my battle with cancer, and when I did that, many people empathised with me and prayed for me.

And they told me, through their comments, of their life experiences, how they faced and overcame their own hardships. It turned out that the world I was so scared of was full of warmth and love and I am now connected with more than one million readers.

Image copyright Mao Kobayashi

If I died now, what would people think? "Poor thing, she was only 34"? "What a pity, leaving two young children"? I don't want people to think of me like that, because my illness isn't what defines my life.

My life has been rich and colourful - I've achieved dreams, sometimes clawed my way through, and I met the love of my life. I've been blessed with two precious children. My family has loved me and I've loved them.

So I've decided not to allow the time I've been given be overshadowed entirely by disease. I will be who I want to be.

All photographs courtesy of Mao Kobayashi

Translation by Mariko Oi

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