How I Use the Japanese Art of Kintsugi in the Practice of Medicine

Michael Hunter, MD

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“NIGGER, NIGGER, NIGGER” cut through the air of the oncology consultation room, with the staccato triplet setting my eardrums vibrating and freezing my face and body in space. I have often thought about race and have heard such racial epithets on several occasions. But I think the boxer Mike Tyson had it right: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

“People were asking me [before a fight], ‘What’s going to happen?’ They were talking about his style. He’s going to give you a lot of lateral movement. He’s going to move; he’s going to dance. He’s going to do this, do that. I said, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get hit. Then, like a rat, they stop in fear and freeze.’”

You would be surprised at how kintsugi (golden joinery) informs my practice of oncology. Kintsugi is the traditional Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered silver, gold, or platinum.

I love the concept of treating breakage and repair as an intrinsic part of the history of an object. The artisan does not disguise the repair, but rather the fix is a highlight. Lacquerware is a practice with a long history in Japan and at some point may have been combined with maki-e as a replacement for alternative approaches to ceramic repair.

Maki-e means “sprinkled picture (or design).” This decorative technique is when the creator draws letters, patterns, or pictures with lacquer on the surface of the lacquer. A metal powder such as gold or silver is then sprinkled and fixed on the object’s surface.

He repeats the racial epithet as his wife looks on in horror. I emerge from my frozen state and began to process the situation rapidly. Recognizing the patient had primary brain cancer, I realize that he has no control over his utterances. “Nigger, nigger, nigger” hits my ears once again, but I notice that the patient appears remorseful, his face drooping and his eyes bending at the corners.

We continue the hour-long consult visit and determine to proceed with radiation therapy combined with an oral chemotherapy drug known as temozolomide. Glioblastoma is uniformly lethal, but I hope to give our gentleman quality (and additional length) of life. With no treatment, half of the…

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Michael Hunter, MD

I have degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Penn. I am a radiation oncologist in the Seattle area. You may find me regularly posting at www.newcancerinfo.com