Quite fittingly, the common assertion amongst survivors that “cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me” resonated with Kathy Matsui, Vice Chair, Chief Japan Strategist at Goldman Sachs and author of Womenomics, when, a few years ago, she stumbled upon a book with a similar title at an American library near the hospital where she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The book, she says, helped her put things into perspective.
Before the onset of the disease, Matsui’s life “was kind of planned out.” Indeed, only five years into her work with Goldman Sachs she wrote her first Womenomics report; she also got pregnant with her first child. In 2000, she became the first female partner at the company and gave birth to a baby girl.
The life she had envisioned for herself suddenly took an unexpected turn when, in 2001, her doctor found in her right breast a lump he said was “not benign,” and therefore required immediate surgery. “I was in a complete state of denial,” she confesses, adding that her initial reaction was: “This is really inconvenient. I’m super busy at the moment!”
Soon, however, the news hit home.
“I’d always felt I was in control of my life, that I was responsible for my own fate. So I put my work before my family. But then facing death was a real wake-up call,” she says.
Wanting to ease her mind, she called her brother, an oncologist working in San Francisco, to find out whether she needed to undergo surgery right away. He quickly reassured her, saying it needn’t be done so soon as cancer can take a long time to spread.
She then booked a series of appointment with an American specialist. “I tried fitting my medical appointments in between client meetings during a subsequent business trip to America,” she recounts. The results showed her tumour was malignant, and so she had to undergo chemotherapy, radiation therapy and other similar treatments.
While recovering at her parents’ flower farm in the bucolic agricultural region of Salinas Valley, United States, Matsui debated whether to go back to the daily grind or give it all up. Struggling with her decision, she sought guidance from her mother-in-law, “a pragmatic German woman,” in Matsui’s words.
“How do you feel every Sunday night?” the mother-in-law asked. “Are you ready to tackle the week or are you totally exhausted?” She was, of course, very tired. But if she stayed home, would she be happy? If she stopped working, her mother-in-law further probed, wouldn’t she end up projecting her unhappiness onto her family? After giving these questions careful consideration, Matsui made her decision.
After six months of cancer treatment, she went back to work. “My breast cancer support group thought I was out of my mind, but work was like therapy to me. I knew the routine, my colleagues… they’re like family,” she says, remarking that she was cautious “not to push herself too hard.”
At work, she talked openly about her illness. Many colleagues, she says, came forward wanting to help, including the company’s CEO who happened to be visiting Tokyo at the time. “She was tremendously saddened to learn of my personal health struggle,” Matsui recalls.
Matsui, who in 2007 was chosen by the Wall Street Journal as one of “10 Women to Watch in Asia” for her work on Womenomics, is well aware that her career choices were not always without impact on her health and family. “I’ve often had to rush off to work or stay late in the office,” she says. “Looking back, I am lucky to still be alive.”
For Matsui, who has been devoting her spare time to helping and supporting others facing similar ordeals, battling cancer was a real eye opener. As she puts it: “Planning is great, but life is unpredictable. After all, who knows what the future holds for any of us?”