Thinking about Chadwick Boseman, Cancer and Hollywood

Would you rather be famous / remembered / rich / accomplished / loved / fill-in-the-blank-with a dream — and die young? Or struggle in obscurity / not accomplish said dream and live longer? Would you rather feel healthy for a shorter period of time, or feel sickly but live longer?

“Would you rather” games are the worst, because for the most part we don’t get to choose anyway, we just have to learn to take what comes. Love, kids, success, health… you don’t always get what you want. But then sometimes we do get to choose, and the choosing is at best bittersweet because the opportunity to get things we want tends to involve sacrifice. The dream job is going to take hours or years away from people you love, children may cost or delay a career goal,

I’ve been thinking of Chadwick Boseman since his death was announced a little over a week ago. We didn’t have much in common in terms of race or gender, specific profession or level of success… but we shared an industry built around storytelling, and aspirations to succeed in that industry, and were part of a much smaller subset: He was diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer when he was still fairly young, just as I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer when I was young.

I’ve never specifically asked other cancer experiencers, but I think many of us feel a special kinship with people whose diagnoses most closely match ours, type and stage and special characteristics. There is a sense of having someone who is about to undertake the same challenging journey we are. The kinship is based on prognosis as well… having similar goals and obstacles and hopes. It’s like when two friends bond over wanting kids or money or success… and, like in those circumstances, sometimes one gets one thing and one gets another, and a chasm opens up. But because at one time you were in the same place, you watch that person, even if from a distance, because in another universe, maybe their fate is yours, or vice versa.

I’ve always been grateful that when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, I was in the middle of the Outback. In a way that, looking back, feels almost magical, everyone in the community was supportive of me devoting the better part of a year to flailing, figuring things out and exploring healing methods — physical, nutritional, psychological, spiritual. I remember I’d just finished some kind of grant application before I left for the hospital, planning to turn it in after my surgery — but when what I’d assumed would be a small, Stage 1 tumor, ended up being Stage 3, with lymph nodes involved, that project vanished from my mind. I don’t think I ever turned in the application, and today I can’t even say what the project was. It was something that seemed important, and then it didn’t. It clearly must not have felt like something pivotal to my life or career?

But what if it had felt that way? Would I have walked away from a BIG opportunity in the same way, or would I have grabbed for the brass ring? And would that choice have made a difference in my outcome? Did — and this feels like a tremendously unfair question to even ask — did Chadwick’s Boseman’s decision to keep working through his illness affect its outcome? The answer is there’s no knowing. He might have stepped away from work and had it change nothing in terms of his health. He still would have died, but died without having been the King of Wakanda. Or, maybe the long hours and stress shifted something — or prevented something from shifting — such that if he had sacrifice the role that would make him famous he might have lived… but he might have always regretted the lost opportunity, and would never have known if that choice made a difference.

The second time I was diagnosed, with uterine cancer, was nine years after the first time. I was living in Los Angeles, a year out of grad school. And it did feel like a pivotal moment in my career. I’d won a screenwriting prize and been hired to do my first rewrite. But — I was still working full time, so was swimming in the long hours and stress of trying to do both well. I was doing things I knew, given my history, could be detrimental to my health, but I didn’t think about it, I thought if I can just get through this I would come out on the other side and everything would be worth it.

Los Angeles was a very different place to be diagnosed — and, looking back, I see how much I was again swayed by my environment. Inclusive of a fairly major surgery and recovery time, I missed only two weeks at my day job. Though people said I should take the time I needed, I couldn’t let go of my reluctance to inconvenience people, and I feared falling behind. Despite everyone’s admonitions to take care of myself, I believed that whenever I did return, everything I missed would have piled up, and I felt responsible for that. And, on the screenwriting front, I made sure to turn in my rewrite draft before telling the producer I was working with about my upcoming surgery. It was awkward timing, as they were about to fire me anyway– and did. Looking back, I’ve concluded that was “lucky” I got fired (or not re-hired) when I did, since if I hadn’t, I might have spent my recovery time continuing to try to fix something that no writer would have the power to fix (as evidenced by the two writers who followed me on the project and the fact the company did not make an original feature film until a decade later). So with hindsight I can feel secure it wouldn’t have been “worth it.”

But is there a scenario that would have made it worth it? What if I’d gotten the screenplay I loved made? If it had become something that other people loved as well? What would have been a fair price to trade?

I’m going to stop writing, because I have more thoughts and feelings than I can address in a blog post of reasonable length, and there’s too much dangerous speculation I could wander into. I will close with the observation that we, as a society, engage a lot of conflicting views about illness, and that I as an individual, do as well.

(As an addendum — Something I didn’t know about Chadwick Boseman is that he was a writer too. He is someone cared deeply about his art. I’m so sorry he didn’t have time to do more work, and so sorry that he and his family didn’t have more time for love and life and all that entails.)

FILE – In this Saturday, March 30, 2019 file photo, Chadwick Boseman poses in the press room with the award for outstanding actor in a motion picture for “Black Panther” at the 50th annual NAACP Image Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Actor Chadwick Boseman, who played Black icons Jackie Robinson and James Brown before finding fame as the regal Black Panther in the Marvel cinematic universe, has died of cancer. His representative says Boseman died Friday, Aug. 28, 2020 in Los Angeles after a four-year battle with colon cancer. He was 43. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

The Semantics of Survivor

This article, about how “cancer survivor” came into popularity, is my first attempt at posting something on Medium.

Update: I got a note from Medium saying I had been “curated,” which is apparently a good thing, and would be promoted in the “Health” section. Woot!

Poem for Uncertain Times

We are into March — hard to believe the year has gone so fast. It’s strange days many ways. For reference in the future — there is a virus, CoVID 19 (Coronavirus) that is going around, and is starting to make people fearful of a pandemic. Paul and I flew to California for our spring break from our semester in Florida, and in the week we have been here, large events have been cancelled, the shelves at stores that contained hand sanitizer or toilet paper are bare. We are entering uncertain times.

In the midst of this, I had a week of pitch meetings– almost a dozen– for a television show I’ve conceived. It felt good, after almost a year of no meetings. Even knowing it marks the beginning of a period of uncertainty, waiting for people to say yes or no, or nothing, to be followed — if I am lucky– by a year of notes, more uncertainty, and probably no money, it still feels good.

Today is our last day home before flying back — so I am at last taking down the Christmas tree– one of the things that didn’t get done in the hectic days before our departure in December.

I may have told this story before: When I lived in Australia, I was diagnosed with cancer. I traveled to Melbourne for a surgery, and when the tumor analysis came back, my prognosis was very much up in the air. It was not cheery. It was uncertain at best. After I had recovered enough to travel, Paul and I returned to our home in Alice Springs — and our friend Genevieve had organized all of our friends and acquaintances to decorate a small tree — each person offering an ornament. The ornaments bore their names, and little thoughts and prayers. As a child, I used to resist the “ugly” ornaments that my parents wanted to put on the tree — I only liked the shiny round ones that “matched.” Now, of course, I treasure each of these ornaments, and every card, though they are becoming crumpled by the years.

Today as I was packing it up, I paused to read a hanging card from my friends Jane and Craig. They had taped this poem on the inside:

Beannacht / Blessing

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.


John O’Donohue

from Echoes of Memory (Transworld Publishing, 2010) reproduced by permission of the author’s Estate

Dancing at the End of Our Plans

January 15, 2019

(This is a post I started months ago and found in my drafts folder.)

I have a friend — an acquaintance who is the spouse of a friend — who has a particularly virulent form of cancer. Last night he wrote on Facebook about the impossibility, in his current situation, of planning for the future, and about trying to live in the reality of the moment and have fun.

I woke up this morning with the kernel of anxiety that is my almost constant companion and I thought about his post, and about that state of no longer planning for the future.

This one night when I was at Cancer Camp, we had a dance. We jumped around to pop music while wearing funny hats and vests and feathery boas from a trunk in the corner and it was a true celebration. It was also surreal, because as I danced, I looked around the room and knew that some of us might be dead soon and that part of “some of us” might be me.  But because we were all in the same boat, it seemed strangely okay. 

I think often about how much our (or my) ability to enjoy life is social. So much is context. Discontent — or maybe just anxiety – comes from having your expectations exist side by side with other people’s expectations. It’s easy to eat a vegetable plate if vegetables are all that’s at the table and everybody is happy with vegetables. It’s harder if you’re surrounded by people eating pizza – especially if they want you to partake, and your veggie plate is making them feel bad. When I lived in the Outback, I happily wore the same rotation of clothes for months, but when we visited the city and everybody had shiny shoes, suddenly everything I had felt faded and dusty.  Death seems like it should be bigger and more important than all of that stuff, but what I found was that it was pretty similar. It was easy to talk about dying with other people who were ill, and harder to talk about it around healthy people. Healthy people like to have conversations about their plans and their futures and things they hope to achieve. Today I am one of those healthy people. I talk about plans. I have career decisions to make, and many worries about the future. 

But that memory of the time that I stopped planning lives inside me. It was a very specific feeling. All my concerns about success or failure dropped away. One week I was furiously working toward a deadline for a grant for a little documentary, the next week it felt completely unimportant. It was sad at first, but it was freeing. These days, when projects hit obstacles, as they seem to constantly, I remember how easily it can all feel unimportant, and it’s oddly comforting.

I also think how lucky I was to have experienced that feeling of freedom with like-minded comrades who could appreciate it with me — to have felt the kinship of dancing into the night with others who were equally uncertain of what the next day might bring.

This One Night, at Cancer Camp

I have a friend — an acquaintance who is the spouse of a friend — who is in a life -threatening cancer situation. Last night he wrote a post on Facebook  about the impossibility, in his situation, of planning for the future, and about his current state of living in the reality of the moment and trying to have fun.

When I woke up this morning, with that kernel of anxiety about the future that is my almost constant companion, I thought about living and laughing in face of death.  And I thought about this one night a Cancer Camp when we had a dance. We danced to pop music while wearing funny hats and vests and feathery boas from a trunk in the corner and it was a true celebration. but it was also surreal, because I could look around the the room — we all had cancer — and know that some of us might be dead soon. It might be me. but because we were all in the same boat, it seemed strangely okay.

“Cancer Camp” was a 10-day retreat/workshop experience that I had shortly after my first cancer diagnosis. We meditated three times daily, we drank veggie juices and had talks about nutrition, pain management and the neuroscience of affirmations. We also spent a day planning for our deaths — made lists of what we wanted to do before we died, and what we wanted our funerals to be like.

I think when the topic of cancer camp comes up now, it is often prompted by one of the tangible life-style changes that I continue to observe after my illness — the way I eat, or largely refrain from alcohol. The discussion tend to go down a path where I recount various dietary and lifestyle changes I made. Also, I tend to say something about how I got lucky, and I think it’s easy to conclude that I think that the relationship between those two things is entirely causal — but the reality is more complex.

My lifestyle changes were helpful — maybe even essential to my recovery. AND I was lucky, in terms of survival. Many of my friends from that time made similar changes, but their situations were different from mine, and their outcomes were different too. I have always been grateful that “cancer camp” was an experience that offered preparation for both outcomes. We lived with hope, and the idea that we could work toward that end, but also with the idea that survival wasn’t the only outcome, and shouldn’t be the only measure of success.

The days at cancer camp were purposefully full. The evenings were lighter — movies screenings, a musician, and one night — it might have been the night after our “dealing with death” day–we had a dance. We stacked ll the chairs from our daytime meetings in the corners, and someone pulled out  boxes of hats and boas and silly things to wear. The music was pop songs I can’t remember. We jumped and danced around with abandon. And I recall, for a moment, thinking —

“It’s okay if I to die.”

I was in Australia. In the mountains. Surrounded by other people who would probably die.

Retrospectively I’ve thought about how much my desires are affected by social context. It was easier, there in the mountains, to drink veggie juices and not eat meat or too much sugar because that’s what everyone else was doing — that’s no surprise. Just as it’s logical that it can be depressing to eat a vegetable plate surrounded by people ordering and offering you pizza. But I hadn’t considered — or understood — how social context affects bigger things too. It was easier to contemplate having a shorter and uncertain future around people who were facing the same. And it was sadder to think about dying around people who were all planning to live longer — to feel distant from conversations that centered on the future– achievements hoped for, plans. It can be hard to relate to people who have an entirely different perspective on time.

For a while, I didn’t think about planning ahead. About how I was going to make a living, and if I would be a success or failure. Though, I was putting great effort into simply healing, which had anxieties of its own–the other anxieties, the once that I had felt through my life, and the ones I wrestle with today, were gone. I was lucky to have some like-minded comrades for this part of my journey, as it is isolating to be the only one living on your own timeline.