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Kokoro: the story of one woman’s inspirational battle with cancer

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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What’s the best way to deal with a potentially fatal diagnosis? For some, their preferred way of coping is to turn to family and friends for support. Others find comfort in God and religion. Still others simply try to go on with their lives as if nothing had changed. In Japan, the latter is the most common approach, which is why thirty-four-year-old newscaster Mao Kobayashi’s decision to start Kokoro, a blog that allows people around the world to follow her battle, is so surprising and so helpful for countless people in her culture. It’s also why she was recently named one of the BBC’s 100 most interesting and inspiring women.

When Kobayashi was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, her daughter was three and her son was only a year old. She writes that her initial belief was that “It’ll be OK because I can go back to being how I was before once the cancer is treated and cured.” If the treatments had worked, perhaps that would have been possible—though as a cancer survivor myself, I have my doubts. But as the months went by, she found herself retreating further and further into the false security of solitude. She was so afraid of being stigmatized by her disease that she went to great lengths to keep it hidden, even cutting off communication with people so that they wouldn’t find out she was sick.

After twenty months of hiding, however, her palliative treatment doctor told her something that fundamentally altered her approach: “Don’t hide behind cancer.” She goes on to describe how those simple words helped her understand that she’d been using her disease as an excuse to live as though she was already dead. And as she began to grapple with that truth, the belief that she was a failure because her life-altering illness was actually altering her life slowly began to fade.

Through her blog, she now helps others struggling with similar issues while also receiving the support, empathy, and prayers of more than one million readers. As she described in BBC’s “100 Women” series, “It turned out that the world I was so scared of was full of warmth and love.” She would go on to write that “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 . . . So I’ve decided not to allow the time I’ve been given to be overshadowed entirely by disease. I will be who I want to be.”

I don’t know if Mao Kobayashi is a Christian, but her perspective is one of which God would approve. Whether it’s a cancer diagnosis, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or any of the other tragedies that breed uncertainty in our lives, the temptation to give those events more power over us than they rightly deserve is one that many, if not most, of us fail to resist. It’s often easier to retreat into ourselves than deal with the pain and fear that threaten to overwhelm us. In so doing, however, we give those emotions an unhealthy level of authority in our lives.

When Jesus described the trials we will face in this life, he never minimized their dangers or acted as though we should simply get over them. In John 16, for example, Jesus describes the persecution, uncertainty, and fear that his disciples will face before concluding with the promise that “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Note that in those verses Jesus never says that the disciples have no reason to fear or that it’s wrong to feel the anger, resentment, and array of emotions that naturally come from the kinds of troubles we will face. Instead, he reassures us that in the midst of those very real trials, we can have peace if we will find it in him. In so doing, he reminds us that peace is not the absence of problems, but rather the ability to prevent those problems from defining our approach to life.

In a culture constantly at war with itself and filled with the kinds of strife, division, and fear that make it so difficult to see anything else, that kind of peace is desperately needed. But if they can’t find it in us, God’s representatives to that world, why would they ever think to look for it in him?

So the next time you face a trial or tragedy that threatens to consume you, dwell instead on the promise of Christ and be filled with the peace that is only found in him. That’s what we and a watching world need most.