A Dual Fight: How A Mountain View City Councilmember Campaigned While Battling Cancer - NBC Bay Area
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A Dual Fight: How A Mountain View City Councilmember Campaigned While Battling Cancer

Newly-elected city council member Margaret Abe-Koga shares at January 10 city council meeting her battle with breast cancer as she sought public office. (Published Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017)

The fifth week of chemotherapy was becoming unbearable.

Mountain View resident Margaret Abe-Koga had been traveling to Stanford Hospital five days a week, every other week, for two- to three-hour chemotherapy treatments.

The first round of drugs hadn’t been as bad as all the doctors told her they would be. But the second round was knocking out all her energy.

Plus, she was wearing a “cold cap” during treatments to minimize hair loss. And this cap was really cold. The tightly fitted hat was strapped on at temperatures ranging from -15 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Her husband wrapped her in a blanket as he changed the cap every 30 minutes after the temperature would rise.

Abe-Koga was tired, cold and weak. But one day that week she also had somewhere else she needed to be.

Instead of going home after treatment to recover as she usually would, she drove to Mountain View City Hall.

She filed papers to run for a seat on the city council.

SWEARING IN CEREMONY

Abe-Koga isn’t new to the council.

The Harvard graduate first served on City Council in 2007 and served for the next eight years. In 2009, she became mayor of Mountain View during the great recession.

In 2015, when Abe-Koga termed out, she left to work for Assemblyman Evan Low. She also ran for a board seat at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, but lost the race. As a citizen Abe-Koga stayed active, helping to rally for the passing of a $15 minimum wage. 

In 2016, Abe-Koga began working part-time for Synopsis as a government affairs manager.

But she says she felt her service as a city councilwoman was not yet done.

She was sworn in January 10.

“It’s great to be back,” Abe-Koga said during the first city council meeting.

She then revealed to the community she had been battling breast cancer for the past year. Her fellow city councilmembers listened in admiration.

"I greatly admire Margaret," said councilmember Pat Showalter via email. "As so many people in Mountain View, I am very grateful that she is healthy now. I look forward to serving with her on the City Council."

Abe-Koga will have only attended one council meeting this year before she takes an absence.

She will be back in the hospital Wednesday when she will have reconstructive surgery on her chest. Recovery is expected to take 6 to 8 weeks.

Koga shared during the city council meeting how her diagnosis actually inspired her to seek office again.

“The health issue gave me a chance to prioritize my life and helped me figure out what my priorities are. Of course family and friends are first, but I also had the chance to reflect and realized how much this community means to me,” Abe-Koga said. So for whatever time I have left I really want to be able to continue to serve and contribute. I hope it’ll be a long time. Things are looking good.”

THE DIAGNOSIS

Abe-Koga looked at her breast one winter day in December 2015 and thought something was off.

Her left breast had an abnormal shape, but she wasn’t sure she was concerned enough to tell her doctor.

At her next check-up she decided to ask. Her doctor did a physical exam, and found nothing, but suggested a 3D scan. Two lumps indicated stage two breast cancer.

“For a while I couldn’t believe it. Just some fear of what does this mean? Am I going to die?” Abe-Koga remembers, as tears begin to fall. “She immediately thought of her two girls, who were 11 and 14 years old at the time. She wanted to be around for them.

She decided to have a double mastectomy. After the January surgery, she was cancer-free.

Yet, a risk still lingered. Doctors were not certain if the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and other areas, so she would need chemotherapy treatments for eight weeks.

Around this time she says people had approached her about running again for city council. Since she had run many times before, she knew the critical campaigning time would be after her chemo treatments.

She said yes.

KNOCKING ON DOORS

By the time campaign season kicked into full gear last fall, Abe-Koga was finished with chemotherapy treatments. And cancer free.

She was ready to hit the campaign trail, but didn’t want to reveal her medical issues to everyone.

Yet balding spots in her scalp and shorter hair nearly told her story. So she wore headbands and hats, an unusual look for the woman many community members have known for years.

People began asking her and her close friends about her new style, but they explained it away.

Abe-Koga hit the streets talking to voters, placing lawn signs, and knocking on doors.

Yet neuropathy limited how much movement she could make. As a side effect of the chemo, the nerves in her legs and feet would tingle and cause debilitating pain.

“My feet would start tingling and I would literally not be able to walk,” Abe-Koga said.

Her campaign staff knew what was going on, but to others she minimized how much pain she was in. She saw how people reacted to Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton as she fell sick during the campaign trial.

“As a woman I get it all the time,” Abe-Koga said. “I thought it would be seen as a weakness.”

Thankfully her campaign staff walked in her place, along with roughly 100 volunteers and endorsement groups.

On November 8th she won the city council seat.

AN UNTIMELY LOSS

By December 2016 Abe-Koga was celebrating both her victory and the holiday season with her family.

She was still going to the doctor regularly for checkups, and receiving hormone injections.

One day while receiving the shot, her husband called.

“You need to come home,” he said.

Her 80-year old mother had been in the hospital and had taken a turn for the worst. She got in the car and traveled back to Mountain View to see her mother at El Camino Hospital.

Her mother had already passed away by the time she arrived.

“I miss her,” Abe-Koga said.

ONE MORE SURGERY

Even though recovery from her reconstructive surgery is expected to take up to two months, Abe-Koga has no plans of being away that long.

She is ready to tackle housing, transportation, infrastructure and other city issues she considers most pressing. So, she plans to call into the city council meetings as soon as she is able. 

“I hope the voters understand if I’m not here,” Abe-Koga said.

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