He Lived Until He Died
Understanding the Challenges of Cancer Treatment Through Experience
When I first heard of Chadwick Boseman’s death by colon cancer at the age of 43, I immediately thought of his tragically foreshortened career as an actor, and how much I enjoyed his performances. I then sent loving energy toward his family and friends, who must be devastated by such a tragic, untimely loss. Then my thoughts turned to mine and my daughter’s cancers and the perspective on Chadwick’s tragedy that these experiences gave me.
There is no trace of cancer in my family that I ever heard about. I’ve never been a smoker and only a casual alcohol drinker. I was diagnosed in 2014 with a squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue, stage four. I had a tumor at the base of my tongue.
Within a few months of my cancer diagnosis, my daughter Sonya was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Sonya was 42 years old at the time. In 2014, it was widely held that colon cancer struck those over 60 and more often affected men, not young, healthy women. We knew nothing of any cancer in Sonya’s family because she came to us in 1975 at the age of three from Vietnam. She had lived in a Saigon orphanage from infancy.
Sonya and I began to compare notes on treatments, side effects, timing of such, and prognosis as the treatments wore on; and we became increasingly conversant with our disease and our medical professionals. Sonya endured chemotherapy and surgery to remove the diseased portion of her colon. I had chemotherapy followed by radiation therapy concurrent with more chemotherapy. Our results were mercifully good. But cancer treatment exacts a high price.
We commiserated about the side effects and compared notes on how they appeared. Many we shared, peripheral neuropathy, weight loss or gain, skin rashes, and hair loss. I didn’t have surgery on my tongue, but I did have surgery to install a feeding tube into my stomach. I lived on the feeding tube for a year and a half. I suffered an almost complete loss of the sense of taste and had dry mouth with considerable difficulty swallowing, which caused a dangerous loss of weight. That is why the feeding tube was a life-giving necessity. My cancer experiences and Sonya’s story are chronicled in my book, Grace with Meals: A Personal Experience of Cancer’s Discovery, Treatment, Recovery & the Truth of Life It Bestows.
What Does it Mean to Be Superhuman?
Our experience with cancer, especially Sonya’s colon cancer, made the news of Chadwick Boseman’s death more poignant. But what is really astounding is what he continued to do during his treatment. His record of cinematic achievements while undergoing “countless surgeries and chemotherapy” is amazing.
In an early scene of 42, a movie released three years before Boseman’s cancer diagnosis, his character Jackie Robinson is playing for Montreal. He makes a spectacular play, and Branch Rickey says, “That was superhuman.”
There is no doubt that Jackie Robinson’s baseball prowess was legendary, as was his ability to control his emotions during his groundbreaking year as the first player of color on the all-white National Baseball League roster. Chadwick’s performance as actor, patient, and compassionate human being in the last four years of his life certainly merits the descriptor superhuman.
Those of us who have endured the privations of cancer treatment know first-hand how debilitating the treatments themselves and the side effects can be. Reviewing Boseman’s accomplishments as a star while concurrently suffering through the physical and emotional assaults of cancer treatment, we can only marvel and ask ourselves, “How did he do it?”
Many cancer patients find that each chemotherapy treatment leaves them exhausted, sickened, and psychologically undone. Many opt-out of the chemo or radiation treatments because they simply can’t stand the toll these treatments take on body and soul. The thought of rising from the bed after chemo and answering the director’s call for make-up, staging, and shooting, especially in the physically challenging roles of Black Panther, 21 Bridges, and Da 5 Bloods would be just that, a thought, quickly dismissed as impossible. That is what Chadwick Boseman delivered.
Alex Trebek, in his battle with pancreatic cancer, one of the cruelest forms of this deadly disease, has spoken eloquently of the debilitating effects of his treatment. I’m certain Trebek would express the same astonishment at what Boseman achieved as he worked around the unforgiving demands of his treatments leading up to his final days.
Oncologists and psychologists will study the course of Boseman’s cancer to understand how he not only withstood the cancer treatments but maintained the energy to complete work that would be exhausting to someone in excellent health. Boseman kept up his work while all the efforts of platoons of doctors and technicians using all the remedies and interventions at their disposal to stop the progress of the disease failed. How he was able to endure the treatment and the resulting lack of progress without being pitched into melancholic inertia defies understanding.
Another aspect of Boseman’s journey is the message sent by clinicians and scientists that colon cancer is striking younger and younger men and women and disproportionately men and women of color. Sonya’s experience is another example of that dawning understanding of the etiology of colo/rectal cancer. Moving the suggested time of colonoscopy examinations to 45 years of age is well advised. This is especially true for those with cancer family history or early warning symptoms.
Chadwick Boseman’s death is an unimaginably sorrowful event. One great source of solace for his family, friends and legions of fans is that he lived right up until he died: Doing what he loved and creating works of art that will be a source of strength and beauty forever.
R. Fred Zuker
August 31, 2020