Kehau Matsumoto: Helping the Hawaiian Community Get the Cancer Care Resources They Need

Age: 78Honolulu, Hawaii

Lillian Frances Bernadette Kehaunani “Kehau” Matsumoto is a 78-year-old patient advocate, a five-time cancer survivor, and a grandmother, who was born in Hawaii and currently lives in Honolulu on the island of Oahu. Kehau was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 after a routine mammogram.

“When I heard this news,” Kehau said, “my first question to the doctor was, ‘Am I going to die?’ I was very afraid.”

After that initial diagnosis, Kehau, did not want to have surgery and opted for radiation therapy.

“I didn’t think I could have breast cancer more than once. Unfortunately, I had it three more times and now I laugh about it because to me it was a hip hop left, right, left, right,” she said.

The second time and third times she was diagnosed, the cancer was treated with lumpectomies, and then in 2006 she underwent more radiation.

“I had cancer. Cancer never had me. I still kept on with my life. I went to my kids’ sporting events, business meetings; I kept my life going. Cancer was not going to stop me,” Kehau reflected on what kept her going through those difficult times. Kehau’s third recurrence in 2006 necessitated a mastectomy of her left breast. Following the surgery, Kahau had five years without recurrence and felt a wave of relief. “When I got to the fifth year, I was so happy. I’m going to live now because I passed my five years,” she said.

But then, in 2016, Kehau was diagnosed with leukemia. “I was devastated,” she said.

For her leukemia, Kehau received oral chemotherapies until 2019 when her doctor said she no longer needed treatment.

“And that was my Christmas present and that was the best Christmas I have had,” she said.

Currently, Kehau is living with minimal side effects from her cancer treatment and has no signs of cancer.

“My numbers are great. It’s a blessing,” she said.

During her treatments, Kehau did not have adequate information about her diagnosis and treatment options.

“So in order to navigate, I had to do my own education, my own inquiries,” she said. “I wish at that time I had a [patient] navigator.”

Seeing the need and still wanting to “pay it forward” as she and her husband had discussed, Kehau became an advocate and worked with other cancer patients to help them navigate their care.

“I found people still had questions. They didn’t know which doctors to look for. They didn’t have transportation or insurance,” she said. Kehau has focused on patients from rural parts of Hawaii.

“They have to come to Honolulu, and they don’t have transportation, they don’t have finances, and the insurance coverage is very limited,” she said, highlighting some of the challenges faced by rural Hawaiians. As an advocate, Kehau is especially proud that she helped serve others. “I can still help and direct people and that is my biggest joy.”

Cultural and family values held by native Hawaiians necessitate careful consideration of cancer screening, treatment, and survivorship care. “Hawaiians are very private and would say, ‘Oh no, I’m fine, I don’t need to get examined. I have to take care of my mo’opuna—grandchildren—and— land—and I would always say, ‘āina will always be here. Your mo’opuna will grow up. If you die, your mo’opuna won’t see you anymore,” Kehau said, recalling how it was often difficult to convince other native Hawaiian women to get routine mammograms.

“I’m proud to be Hawaiian, but I want Hawaiians to live and learn more about cancer, so they would get their [screenings] done,” Kehau added. “Hawaiians in general are strong and proud people who believe they can get food from the ocean, learn how to plant [food] in the ground and bring it to the table for their family. They want to be their own resources. They want to be their own people.”

This often creates a distrust of modern medicine.

“Hawaiians have their own ways of healing themselves, but they do not work all the time, so they have to use the Americanized ones,” she said.

Kehau recognizes that the work she did as an advocate helped many patients. “I don’t want pats on the back. I just want a cure,” she said. “One of the most important things is never do cancer alone. Get your family involved or someone special, but you can never, ever walk alone with cancer. You should always have someone with you.”