In the summer of 2020, at age 43, actor Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer. His legacy includes his iconic film work and his reputation as a warm and generous human being.
but also stunned millions of fans around the world; he had not said publicly that he had any disease, much less stage 4 cancer.
Boseman’s original diagnosis was stage 3, in 2016; then the disease reappeared. She shared this news with no one besides his family and a small group of close confidants.
Like many who love his work and mourn his loss, I have wondered why Boseman chose this level of privacy about his illness.
High-profile movies can be expensive to insure, even in everyday circumstances. perhaps, I thought, he feared that if his illness was revealed, no one could afford to hire him.
Reading about the circumstances of his death, I discovered another explanation, one that made me choke.
Several outlets reported that, until shortly before his death, Boseman believed he had much more time to live. It was even reported that he was trying to regain the weight that he would need to start production on Black Panther 2, the sequel to his most famous film.
Related: The colorectal cancer wake-up call we didn’t want, but need
my own cancer diagnosis…and how, and when, I chose to share it
Personally, I am well aware of the challenges of disclosing a cancer diagnosis. In 2008, I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer and went through chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. I also had to choose how, when and if I wanted people to know.
I told my friends and some family members right away, and asked any relatives I didn’t speak to directly to help me inform others (I have a large extended family). but regarding my office, I decided not to tell my colleagues, beyond those in my department, until I was out of the thick of the treatment.
My diagnosis dominated most aspects of my life, and I saw no reason to engage in further discussion about it while I was working. I thought it was okay to listen to my gut, which said I didn’t want to air the details of my private life in a big office in real time. As much as possible, he wanted the job to be a “cancer-free zone.”
barely knew some of the staff; and I wasn’t in the office full time, so my absence for treatments wouldn’t have to be obvious. what would be clear, I realized, was my changed appearance.
so I went wig shopping, chose something close to my hair color and length, and hoped for the best. if you squinted and thought i had decided to cut my bangs and invest in regular hairstyles, it could have been my hair. Finally, after completing chemotherapy, I had enough hair growth to get rid of the wig.
One day I emailed the whole office before I got off work at night, saying I would look a lot different the next day, with the bob wig replaced with my actual buzz cut. (I quoted a semi-celebrity in the email subject, someone whose hairstyle at the time the wig reminded me of “bye-bye to suri cruise’s hair,” I wrote, “and a new hello to mine.”) It’s been going on and I said I’d appreciate any questions.
I was ready; and I have been open about my experience with cancer ever since. Many at work thanked me for my candor, wished me well, and even assured me that my buzz cut was flattering (that was over the top, but that was nice). Some came to me weeks, months, and even years later with questions about how to help their own family or friends who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
celebrities and cancer: who decided to go public, why and when?
Celebrities seem to fall into different camps when it comes to their diagnoses. Some announce the news right away, while others, like Boseman, choose to keep it quiet. sometimes they explain; sometimes, as in boseman’s case, they don’t, or never get a chance to.
Is it possible to control the narrative of your illness as a celebrity?
Until I researched this article, I thought I knew of a case where a celebrity was able to “craft” his own narrative of illness, and then death, exactly as he chose.
david bowie died of liver cancer in 2016, days after releasing his last album, blackstar. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” Bowie sings on “Lazarus,” a single from the album. he seemed like he knew what was going on and created blackstar for the world as a beautiful farewell (just like boseman, he kept the news of his illness private).
but i heard some of bowie’s colleagues said he talked about doing a new job just a few weeks before he died. Ivo van hove, who directed Bowie’s musical, also called Lazarus, in 2015, told the BBC in a documentary about the musician: “I am really convinced that he was fighting death and that he wanted to continue and continue.” /p>
none of us has complete control when it comes to disease. all we can do is figure out how we want to handle it on any given day, not knowing what the next will bring.
Here’s what I do know: Every decision has merit; every choice has force. the details matter less than the goal: a life, including illness, setbacks, and crises, lived as well as we can.
This is how some celebrities have chosen to navigate a cancer diagnosis, sometimes with an explanation, sometimes without.
Related: 3x Cancer Survivor Talks Childhood Cancer, Chemo Side Effects, and Living With tp53