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Behind the Brave Face of Someone With a Chronic Illness

I am chronically ill with multiple diagnoses, including chronic migraines, fibromyalgia, scoliosis, and arthritis. I am a college student, and I work with children. I have long days, between work, classes, and homework. Many days when I come home from work and class, all I want to do is hide from the world, keeping my water and pain medication within arm’s reach. Much of what I do for work is physically demanding — bending to lift a child, running after kids, twisting to reach for items to provide quality care for the children in my care. Many days when I come home after a long day of work and classes, I am exhausted beyond words. Throughout the years, I have mastered the art of hiding how I am feeling while I am out working and spending time with friends. I have heard several times that if I had not mentioned my chronic illnesses, they never would have guessed that I am living with chronic pain. I put on a brave face when I have to go out and do what I have to do.

On August 28, 2020, actor Chadwick Boseman passed away at the age of 43 from a quiet yet tough battle with colon cancer; he was diagnosed in 2016 with stage III colon cancer, which progressed into stage IV colon cancer. Throughout his battle, he remained silent about his battle with cancer. Throughout his multiple surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy, he continued to work and make films. Despite his illness, he worked to complete films including “Marshall” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Like many fans, his illness and death came as a heartbreaking shock to me. The first film I had seen him in was “42,” where he portrayed baseball player Jackie Robinson. I eventually saw him in “Black Panther,” where he portrayed King T’Challa. Many celebrities made posts honoring his life and talent. There were also posts that were ableist, stating that if Boseman could continue to work and make films while dealing with multiple surgeries and chemotherapy, everyone else could also deal with whatever was going on for them and continue to work. Posts like these bother me because everyone’s journey with varying forms of chronic illness is different.

When people share posts like that about Chadwick Boseman continuing to work while battling cancer, it tells people like me that we don’t do enough. It tells us that we don’t matter. Yes, I work multiple jobs that are physically demanding, but I pay for it dearly. I spend most of my days off exhausted, wanting to do nothing more than sleep. Most of the time, though, I can’t. Things around the house need to be done, no matter how I am feeling. Chadwick Boseman worked and did his films, because that was his job, and his job needed to be done.

Whether a disability is temporary or permanent, sharing things saying, “If Chadwick Boseman could work through multiple surgeries and chemotherapy, what’s your excuse?” is harmful and ableist. Each disability and illness, whether permanent or temporary, affects each person differently. No two people with the same diagnosis experience the same exact symptoms. Just because you see someone with an invisible illness doing something that is physically demanding, doesn’t mean that they aren’t tired, in pain, or experiencing symptoms of their illness.

Chadwick Boseman was a talented actor who will be sorely missed. He put on a brave face while battling cancer and filming each movie he was in while receiving treatment. When you see your friend with an invisible illness working hard, much like Chadwick Boseman, remember that you probably aren’t seeing the whole picture. You aren’t seeing the medications they take or the sometimes exhausting treatments and procedures they endure. Yes, Chadwick Boseman did it, but none of us saw how exhausting chemotherapy and radiation probably were for him. None of us saw or experienced the pain from his cancer.

Chadwick Boseman, like many of us who deal with pain and illness, put on a brave face. He did his very best. Before you share something asking what everyone else’s excuse is, remember that you only see what people allow you to see; you don’t see the tears while we lay awake at night dealing with pain-induced insomnia, or the way arthritis makes my spine feel. You don’t see how bad migraines can get, or how exhausting the recovery from said migraine is. What you see are our brave faces, much like the one that Chadwick Boseman put on while filming. Chadwick Boseman, thank you for sharing your talent with us. From playing Jackie Robinson in “42” to starring as singer James Brown in “Get on Up,” to giving us your one-of-a-kind performance as King T’Challa in “Black Panther” – your talent and memory will live on for generations to come. Wakanda Forever.

Getty image by FotoW.

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