Mountain View City Councilmember Margaret Abe-Koga discovered her competitive streak while practicing kendo as a middle schooler.
“I’m of the belief that the best offense is a strong defense,” she says, recalling how the martial art taught her to “read” her opponents and anticipate their next move.
As an adult, she took that outlook to politics and ran two successful campaigns, becoming the first female Asian American to serve on the Mountain View City Council. But as she geared up for a third run, an uninvited contender made its presence known just before the holidays in 2015: Stage-two breast cancer.
“Things happened quickly after that,” she recalls. Doctors swiftly scheduled a double mastectomy and she began chemotherapy the following spring. But Abe-Koga did not put her campaign on hold.
“I told my doctors my plan, and we tried to work out the schedule of all my treatments,” she says.
When they confirmed the chemotherapy could be completed by that fall, she set her 2016 campaign plans in motion.
“I thought I could do it, so I decided to go for it,” says the mother of two who had campaigned once before with a newborn.
Her stamina was hampered, but Abe-Koga believes walking door to door is “key,” so she put in at least two hours a day for canvassing, keeping her diagnosis to herself.
“When Hillary Clinton had pneumonia and collapsed, I just knew that there would be people who would try to use it against me as a reason for not supporting me, so I decided to keep it quiet and didn’t go public with my news until after I was elected,” she explains. ‘That was very challenging, because I tend to like to be pretty open about my life.”
“She is so tenacious,” says her former campaign manager Ellen Kamei, now a district director for Assemblymember Marc Berman (District 24). “She was doing her chemotherapy, radiation, her cool ice mask to retain her hair, and doing candidate forums.”
The cancer came as a surprise, as Abe-Koga had no family history of the disease. Although she has not practiced kendo since the birth of her second daughter in 2004, Abe-Koga says her grounding in the martial art equipped her with the mental strength to deal with cancer, the most unexpected challenger of her life.
“Kendo taught me a lot about spirituality, learning to be mentally prepared through the physicality of it,” said the former Northern California Kendo Championships women’s champion. “You can’t always know what’s going to hit you, but you can be ready and in a position where you can accept whatever comes your way.”
Abe-Koga, 47, says she can’t over-stress the importance of getting medical screenings and maintaining an active lifestyle. In the past, going to the doctor wasn’t exactly a frequent occurrence in her family, she says.
“My dad had quite a few ailments but the biggest challenge with that was because of his pre-existing conditions — as a self-employed gardener he was denied health insurance coverage,” says Abe-Koga, who is currently in remission. “Growing up we hardly ever went to the doctor. I think I only went twice when I had to go to get my wellness checkups to get into school.”
At home, she saw her parents use natural medicine such as ginseng or kelp powder — traditions they had brought to the U.S. as Japanese immigrants. The Eastern wellness philosophy she had growing up would serve as a source of comfort for mind and body as she went through cancer treatment as an adult.
“Frankly, I’ve always been rather averse to Western medicine and tried to avoid it as much as I could, but obviously with the cancer I had to go through traditional treatment, which I’m very grateful for,” she says.
When the chemotherapy caused nerve pain, she followed through on her oncologist’s recommendation for acupuncture.
“In kendo, you learn about your ki, your internal spirit, so something like acupuncture makes a lot of sense to me,” she says. “It’s great to see the melding of Eastern and Western medicine — I think it can work well together and have a more holistic approach when you have both influences.”
Abe-Koga was born and raised in San Mateo, Calif., an only child surrounded by the Silicon Valley spirit of innovation. Her parents grew up in Japan during World War II, and in California they fused a sense of service and mission into Abe-Koga from a young age.
“They worked hard, but we were poor and the language barrier definitely created a lot of challenges for them,” says Abe-Koga, a Harvard University alumna who got her start through student government and the San Mateo County Youth Commission. “I learned early on how important it is to have a voice in the community and the process.”
In addition to having served on the city council, Abe-Koga has also served as mayor, and her drive for public service is far from fading.
Kamei called her a “fighter.”
“There’s a term in Japanese — gambare,” Kamei says. “The response is gambarimasu. It’s, ‘yes, I will, I’m going to do it.’ She has that spirit.”