Princess of Cancer: Memoir of a Feminist Fighting against Cancer

By Akiko Ebihara

Every year, there are posters advertising for “Princess Experience” event held at Keio Plaza Hotel in Keio Line. It always made me feel bad, but I recently came to think about this in a little different light. I began to think that the widely accepted conception of the princess might be misleading.

Girls think it would be great to be a princess because they believe it is such a tremendously lucky position to be in. They might think they get to eat delicious meals and wear beautiful dresses for free, be loved by sweet and handsome prince, and people lavish attention on her and respect her. But once we think of the real princess of this country, the hardship she has been facing is apparent. There is not even guarantee that the prince is handsome! The New York Times reported the marriage of Masako and Crown Prince Naruhito with the headline of “A Reluctant Princess.” It is true for princesses elsewhere. The tragedy of Princess Diana is still fresh in our minds, and there was a case of suicide in the process of reporting Princess Catherine’s pregnancy.

The business of being a princess is no super-celeb full time housewife. Princesses must be experiencing one difficulty after another. It must require a number of skills and strengths, including a strong will, generosity, altruism, and the ability of giving up on things in order to successfully meet her role. 

A long time ago, I taught English as a part-time lecturer in a university in Saitama. I assigned a short story called The Princess Who Stood on Her Own Two Feet, written by an American feminist writer, Jeanne Desy, to incoming students. The princess in a kingdom near the ocean was tall, bright, and cheerful as a sunflower, and very skilled with horse-back riding, but she had a hard time meeting an appropriate partner. She decided to marry a Prince based on political strategy.

The prince was handsome, but into cutesy girls. When the Princess was riding on a horse, he would ask if no one has taught that ladies should ride side-saddle. The Princess thought it was nonsense, but would not say it out loud. When she offered an insightful remark on history and politics, the Prince became upset and told her that women should make just a small comment only when they are asked, because women should be seen and not heard. But the Princess wanted to marry. So she gave up the horse-back riding she loved, stopped talking, and spent much time laying down for the Prince who did not like the fact she was taller than him. 

When she was about to be forced to give up her beloved dog because of the Prince, however, she made up her mind to break the engagement and walk away from him. Her parents were concerned with the relationship between the two kingdoms. The Princess told them that it was not her duty to sacrifice all she had, and her duties were to stands tall with her own two feet, and not to betray those who love and trust her.

We could say this is just another feminist fairy tale, but to me, the line, “A princess stands tall” left a strong impression. I was tall since I was young, and my grandmother used to say to me, “You are so tall. It really is a shame that you cannot even fit in half a tatami-mat.” Feminists have insightfully pointed out that men tended to occupy physical space as much they could, while women are expected to occupy a minimum amount of space.

I decided to think of myself a “Princess of Cancer.” A princess stands tall and bravely faces hardship. She and those who are suffering from the same disease support each other, work on campaigns so that younger ones would not have to suffer from the same disease. She would love herself, try not to be a burden of people who believe in her, yet at the same time respond to their love, relying on them at times. She would think what she could do for them, and value the inter-connectedness of people. She would think of those who are troubled and suffering. She would stand firm in being always with the weak. She would fight against the evil and injustice.


In March 2012, after my retirement, my body could not handle even half of the anti-cancer drug I was supposed to take. As always, my bone marrow could not take it and my body didn’t have enough white blood cells. My doctor lowered the dose by two levels, and said that there was no point in continuing the chemo therapy if the dose were lower than that.  

There were two times in which I accepted the fact that the death was nearing. This was the second time. The first time was two summers ago, when I was told that I might not be able to receive radical treatment. On that day, I wandered around the underground mall in Shimbashi (mid-Tokyo). It’s been two years. I did live very well, didn’t I?

I started reading books again in search of alternative treatment. I ordered Hasumi Vaccine, which my friend recommended. I also realized the difficulty of reducing stress, eating well, and exercising moderately. It’s easier said than done. I also learned that while there are some cases of miraculous recoveries from cancer with alternative medicine, most of those who used alternative medicine still died. Even among those who I met after I learned that I had a cancer, there are people who chose not to receive anti-cancer treatments or people who decided not to continue the treatments in the early stages. They all have passed away in about half year.

There are doctors who would say, “Don’t fight against cancer.” But it is not easy. It doesn’t really help. The weight of critical decisions I have to make can be so heavy and overwhelming. I decided that the use of anti-cancer drugs was the most rational way to treat my cancer, but at the mid-point of my treatment in early June, my body could not handle the treatment and my doctor and I decided to discontinue the treatment. The tumor marker was fine. I was in high spirits. I am a strong princess. I will live and I will stay positive.

It has been nine months since then. I have experienced multiple re-emergences of cancer, but I have been staying calm so far. I don’t know how long I will be able to live, but I am thankful that I was given the time in which I could reflect on my life. I struggled with balancing work and family life. I have argued with my husband because of this, but now I think of it as something that might have been even beneficial for my children. Now I am grateful for my husband. It is something wonderful about life that I have someone to argue with. I was lucky to have a husband who is supportive, and who has never lamented his bad luck of having a wife with cancer.


In the winter of 2012, I was given an opportunity to give a talk on how I became a feminist at the Shibuya Women’s Center. I thought about feminism while making powerpoint slides. That was when I started to think that maybe I should say something I could not say, something that I can now say. It is something I have been hesitant to talk about, as soon as I think of myself as a feminist. It is my deep emotional feeling towards my children.

A little over ten years ago, I was chatting with a fellow instructor in a instructors’ room in a college in Tokyo. I have two daughters and one son, and she, an American woman, has two daughters. In the middle of the endless conversation about children’s school, the challenges of raising teenagers, etc., she said, “Kids are so cute, you know. The lives of my children are even more important than my own life. But as a feminist, I can’t really say that out loud; I can’t help but to feel how much I love them.”

I strongly agreed with what she said. It really is true. But why? Is it because a prominent feminist scholar, Ogura Chikako, once famously said “married feminists are what I don’t like”? I have respect toward her for saying what most people can’t say. But it also revealed that marriage and children were an Achilles’ heel for many feminists.

People have different experiences. Some are married and some are not. Some have study abroad experiences and some don't. Those are just differences. But women don’t like to hear other women bragging about their experience of mothering as something so wonderful. Much more so than how some people think of showing off of study abroad experiences as tasteless. I personally am not fond of women who do that either, especially full-time housewives. I also hate the cliche, “adults become grown-ups through parenting.” But wouldn’t this kind of attitude be considered intolerant to people of the same gender who have no other choice but to deal with their anxiety about identity through their everyday work of childcare. It is also problematic that married feminists, including myself, try to maintain the alliance with single feminists by emphasizing the challenging aspects of childrearing, while feeling that the joys involved in parenting are greater than the difficulty and hardship associated with it.

As someone who has accepted that her life would soon end, what I can say is that raising my children was what I consider as the most important job I accomplished, reflecting on fifty-some years of my life. I admit that I am not a special person, but it was through the existence of my children that I felt that I experienced the transcendence from my non-special being. It might provoke the disapproval of my friends and colleagues, but with no sense of hyperbole, this is my honest feeling.

A quarter century ago, I had a conversation with a professor of history, Masatoshi Tanaka, who was working as a part-time lecturer in the college I worked for, after retiring from University of Tokyo. 
He expected much from me and took me under his wing. When I said to him “I can’t write articles because I am so busy taking care of kids. I can’t relax because I’m always worrying about kids. It is a disadvantage to be a woman.” He said, “Kuwahara Takeo wrote in his CV that there was no academic productivity in so and so year, because his first son was born. There is no more important job than raising children. This is same for men, too.”

Professor Tanaka was always carrying the pictures of his children and grandchildren. When I sent a new year’s card with my son’s picture in it, he sent me a very nice letter, which addressed not only to myself but also to my son’s name with an honorific, something unusual for small children. In his letter, he wrote, “There is no better expression of peace than your son’s smile.” He was an advocate for equality, being sensitive to gender, and also an opponent of war. He was someone had the experience of being drafted as a student while enrolled in University of Tokyo and losing all of his classmates with whom he had shared dreams for the future. I respected him so much, and I was touched when he said to me, “Nothing good would come out when you prioritize career over children.”

I don’t know what it’s like not to have children. There must be a sense of fulfillment, and difficulty at times for them, but I just can’t even imagine what that is like. The same must be true that only those who with children understand the ups and downs, happiness and misery of having children. I also think, for most ordinary people, the way they love other people's children is an extension of the love they have toward their own children. But feminism should be something that respects all things that include such a thing. Given that having a career is an essential for one’s financial independence and self-esteem and respect, I want to tell younger feminists that it is important to contribute to issues surrounding parenthood as well. That’s how a healthy society should be. And it is also true for singles, couples without children, and all men.

Original article in WAN website can be found here.

Translated and adapted by Eiko Saeki