Artist and activist traci kato-kiriyama overcomes breast cancer

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traci kato-kiriyama (left) pictured with her partner, Raquel Joyce, in August 2019. photo courtesy of traci kato-kiriyama

traci kato-kiriyama (left) pictured with her partner, Raquel
Joyce, in August 2019. photo courtesy of traci kato-kiriyama

LOS ANGELES — traci kato-kiriyama, director and co-founder of Tuesday Night Project, which presents Tuesday Night Café, the longest-running Asian American-produced public arts series in the country, was extremely busy as an award-winning artist, community organizer and cultural producer when she faced a big jolt — she was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2016.

“I am now with a great team at City of Hope … It looks like we caught it fairly early — Stage II,” she wrote in a blog at the time. “I got a routine mammogram (hadn’t had one in two years since my first one at age 40); this showed dense breast tissue (which is common as we age) and led to an ultrasound on my left breast; the ultrasound showed calcification and that led to a needle biopsy, which then reported the cancer in the pathology report.”

She had been meaning to get another mammogram, but kept putting it off, “even after losing my Auntie last year (she had non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and previously had breast cancer).”

The Little Tokyo activist said she was neither in shock nor depressed upon being diagnosed with breast cancer. “But I had been feeling fatigued … I was running around, doing too much and not taking care of myself.”

kato-kiriyama, who underwent a lumpectomy first, then chemotherapy, followed by radiation treatment, issued a warning to anyone for whom cancer runs in the family. “Please don’t wait. If you’re 40, start getting an annual mammogram and get it done every year … If you have breast cancer in your family and are under the age of 45, you are eligible for gene testing.”

As the result of battling breast cancer, kato-kiriyama wrote in her 2016 blog, “I have learned SO MUCH about communication … I’m so utterly grateful at all the reaching out and follow-up and huge shows of support … In the meantime, here are my general rules as it relates to how you can support me through our communications (with cancer and in life):

“Speak freely — It’s okay to tell me that you’re freaked out … that you want to be on this journey with me; that you don’t have any clue on what to say;

“Stray away from assumptions — People might assume — because I’m a long-time organizer … and a make-things-happen kind of person — that I want to coordinate the effort around support through this next phase of my journey. The answer to that would be a definite NO … I LOVE when other people plan things;

CANCER SURVIVOR ­— traci kato-kiriyama pictured with her partner, Raquel Joyce, during period of chemo treatment at the end of 2016. photo courtesy of traci kato-kiriyama

“Let’s talk as usual, as ‘normal’ — After quite some time of hanging out with my friends Sue Jin & Matt, I asked Sue Jin how this kind of news feels to her … She told me, as soon as she walked into my home … that she is still processing this and also wants to ‘be normal with me.’ So, here’s my thinking — this is a new ‘normal’ for me … (Cancer) doesn’t define me in total, but it will impact me for the rest of my life … So, again, let’s speak freely and converse as usual … let’s have FUN and be real — with cancer, with life.”

Coincidentally, during the observance of October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month this year, she declared in an e-mail to Nichi Bei Weekly on Oct. 10, “My health is all good now. Kicked the cancer out by 2017.”

kato-kiriyama stated that she felt “Great!” after beating cancer … “I had transformed a lot by then — especially the first two years after the diagnosis. I struggle again from time to time about overloading my schedule … But I am much, much better as a whole in taking breaks when I need to, getting rest, and in being much more available to myself.

Artist, Activist, Educator
R. Scott Okamoto, educator and musician, wrote on her Website, “traci kato-kiriyama is easily one of the most recognizable and accomplished artists and educators in the API community in Los Angeles and beyond, but as anyone who knows her will point out, she is so much more than her accomplishments … Being a part of traci’s community is being connected to virtually every part of the Asian American experience.”

Okamoto, a self-described “nerdy” former English professor “of a ridiculously conservative university” added, “I attend poetry, music and art nights on Tuesdays and spoken word shows throughout the year, all because traci makes them happen. Knowing traci … is being connected to the heart of the API community in Los Angeles.”

“As the director/creator of Tuesday Night Café, traci is the brains … and the heart and soul of Los Angeles’ premier space for API artistic expression,” Okamoto added. “As an educator working in the university setting as artist-in-residence for Pomona College’s Asian American Resource Center, or … working with middle school and high school students … traci inspires us, challenges us, and brings us together with her art and her projects.”

kato-kiriyama is the principal writer and performer of PULL project ensemble alongside aerial artist Kennedy Kabasares. Through a heavily collaborative devised process over several years, they created Tales of Clamor — a hybrid theater, aerial arts, movement and media performance project.

She also serves as a co-chair for #VigilantLOVE (a group that fights Islamophobia and violence), and is active with Nikkei Progressives (grassroots L.A.-based social justice group), Okaeri: A Nikkei LGBTQ Gathering, Visual Communications, Great Leap’s FandangObon, and Discover Nikkei. She has served as guest lecturer for the Claremont Colleges through the Intercollegiate Department of Asian American Studies.

The artist continues to write about her journey with breast cancer and all the lessons learned. “I continue to be of support to many people who reach out to me about their diagnoses or their illness they’re keeping a secret with most of the world, or with a person who has a partner or family member going through cancer and illness.”

kato-kiriyama added, “I think all the time about Los Angeles and the people who brought me up and those, of all ages, who continue to raise me. I think of the undeniable power of art to bridge people at a totally necessary heart and spirit level. That, if I didn’t have art, I wouldn’t know how to survive and if I didn’t have community, I’d have no reason to.”

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