The state of cancer treatment availability in Japan

According to Asahi, cancer patients in Japan must deal with either sub-par treatment in their home prefectures, or long commutes to Tokyo for high quality treatment. Even large prefectures like Osaka have this problem.

Even a panel of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare acknowledges a glaring disparity among regions in the quality of cancer treatment. It says there is a gap of up to 10 percentage points in the five-year survival rates for cancers of the stomach, large intestine and lung among six prefectures, including Osaka and Yamagata, that it studied.

No simple nationwide comparison is possible because of a lack of long-term statistics on incidences of cancer and survival rates.

But a separate survey of 30 cancer hospitals nationwide recently found gaps of up to 13 to 20 percentage points for cancers of the stomach, lung and breast.

To Tomoko Ogura, a company employee in Kochi, that fact hit home when she underwent an operation for stomach cancer in a large public hospital in Kochi Prefecture in early 2004.

Soon after having her stomach and gall bladder surgically removed, Ogura, 33, found that her cancer was in a much more progressed stage than she had been told. Her doctor, who had tried to shield her from the truth so as “not to discourage her,” was not comfortable about recommending chemotherapy to prevent a recurrence. She couldn’t find another local specialist to consult for a second opinion.

The article goes on to compare Japan’s cancer treatment facilities, doctors, and technicians to those of the United States. Japan is far behind, pitifully so in some areas.

Hopefully, articles like this one, combined with the government’s 10-year anti-cancer program and efforts by the health ministry to spread awareness, will help turn this situation around.

In the meantime, this sort of thing is one of the main reasons why I’m very reluctant to give up my US citizenship, even though I could imagine myself living in Japan for the rest of my life. (A person cannot hold a dual citizenship in the US and Japan.)