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What to Keep in Mind About Chadwick Boseman's Decision to Hide His Illness

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T’Challa. Thurgood. Jackie… All wonderful and powerful roles Chadwick Boseman played before his untimely death. But nothing prepared him for the role of cancer patient. He fought as hard as he could, and the outside world had no clue of his battle or how it may have affected his life. He chose to only reveal his diagnosis and treatment to close friends and family while continuing to work like business as usual. And it was a blessing he could keep such an aspect of his life private and keep a sense of normalcy. However, it is important to know not everyone is so lucky. Let me explain.

I recently came across a post on social media outlining the last four years of Boseman’s life and career. Toward the end of the post it discussed how we should not be our diagnoses and essentially be able to conduct life as normal during an illness or treatment. And while yes it was so AMAZING that Boseman was able to deliver speeches, make movies, conduct interviews and advocate all while having life-changing surgeries, undergoing chemo and trying other treatments, we need to real here.

First, not every person’s illness is going to be the same and allow them to go through treatment and assume business as normal. Every person’s body chemistry is different. They respond to treatment differently so they may not be able to do as many things during the process. We can’t expect them to work at an optimal level every day. The side effects can also be worse than the actual treatment. We may tire easily and need to take rest. Another thing to be aware of is that such treatments can weaken the immune system, making us more susceptible to infections that can be life-threatening.

Second, not everyone is blessed with a huge support system. We all know rest is important and if you still have to do everything yourself, how can you really rest? But if you have a great team to help do things for you, it can be a huge asset as you recover from chemo or other treatments and surgeries. It also makes those bad days better because it allows your body to recover.

I myself don’t have the largest support system and am pretty much my sole provider. I have days where I feel dog awful but cannot rest because there is nobody else to step in and help me. So I have to push through in order to get things done but the consequence is that my body is over extended. It leads to extreme fatigue and exhaustion and on my off days, I am so tired and feel so bad I cannot ever fully recover.

But Boseman may have had a very helpful support system and team to step in and help him with meals, laundry and cleaning so he could actually rest post-operatively and after his chemo days. That support can do a world of good when your body needs to fully rest and recover. It can also potentially improve the efficacy of treatments.

Boseman was likely able to structure his life to step back from work to rest and not worry about the financial impact. For many of us, we don’t have the luxury of taking the necessary time off that is recommended. We have to “rush” to get back to work because the fear of too much unpaid time stresses us out to the point we aren’t healing effectively.

Fourth, he probably had access to care and treatments that many of us don’t. We really need to focus on this. Access to adequate and affordable health care is a real issue in our country. And if you are unable to pay for or get quality care, then your health greatly suffers, making your quality of life worse. While cancer will never be easy, many of us can barely afford the bare minimum. This is hardly enough to keep us up and functioning to do simple things like bathe or cook a basic meal.

Please don’t take this as me being hard on Boseman for the choices he made about his health and his decision not to disclose his diagnosis. We’re lucky he was able to bring such empowerment to so many people. I just caution everyone from using Boseman’s battle as the rule and not the exception. This should not be the litmus for what patients should be able to do while ill because we are not all the same. It’s important to remember Boseman while also giving empathy to those whose health journeys look very different.

Header image via Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Originally published: September 4, 2020
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