Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, Higher Ed, Public Health

A hero dies too young

September 2, 2020 |4:15 min read

Chadwick Boseman played heroes and was one

Boseman’s most acclaimed character, T’Challa/Black Panther, was a hero who acted bravely for community good, not self-interest, was empathic, visionary and without narcissism.

In 2018, I wrote about how moved I was by the movie, Black Panther. When I read that Chadwick Boseman had died of colon cancer at age 43, I felt like I had lost someone dear, although I’d never met him (but wish I had).

Chadwick Boseman was almost mythically productive in the 4-year period after which he was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer and underwent numerous rounds of chemotherapy and surgeries. His family and friends lost a son, husband, colleague and confidante. We lost a hero and a spokesperson for our better selves. I was reminded of our dear colleague, Travis Johnson, MD, MPH, in Asheville, NC, who died last winter of colon cancer, also 43 and having been diagnosed in his 30s. While still more common in people over 65, according to the American Cancer Society, cases have been increasing among younger adults. And African Americans are more likely to die of colon cancer than are whites. (See “What to Know About Colon Cancer,” in The New York Times, Aug. 29).

Boseman’s legacy includes movies and roles in which he played memorable, heroic characters, e.g., Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson. He also stood for the authentic treatment of Black issues in cinema and other forms of art and society. In a Daily Tar Heel column honoring his legacy and impact, Charity Cohen wrote,

In a time when positive Black imagery in mainstream outlets is sparse, Boseman used his gift to educate, empower and change the negative rhetoric around the Black experience. … As an actor, Boseman amplified Black voices; as a humanitarian, he selflessly gave to children who were fighting the same ruthless and invasive disease that he was battling; as a creator, he worked tirelessly with discipline and dedication to see his vision come into fruition. 

Boseman seemed to understand the purpose of life in a way that awareness of one’s ticking mortality clock may sharpen. He used his 2018 commencement speech at Howard University (his alma mater) to urge graduates to take a hold of the time they are given and never give up.

In a digital article with a link to a video of his speech (beginning at 6:55), Kyley Schultz recounted:

‘I don’t know what your future is,’ Boseman said to the crowds, eyes twinkling. ‘But if you’re willing to take the harder way, the more complicated one, the one with more failures at first than successes . . . then you will not regret it.’

‘Purpose is the essential element of you,’ Boseman said in the middle of the speech. ‘It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill.’

Our students come to Gillings to acquire the knowledge and skills to make a positive difference in the world. Our faculty, staff and alumni are making a difference. It is a privilege to live a life of purpose. Now, more than ever, working in public health can be a life of purpose. Each of us must find the reason we were put on this earth; then, work becomes not drudgery but mission, and mission trumps money every day. (Of course, every person must have the means to live a safe, healthy and satisfying life.) Boseman had taken the harder path, and in encouraging students to be willing to take it too, and to discover their individual purpose, he gave them a gift that will continue giving throughout their lives.

Chadwick Boseman communicated courage, family, kindness, work, purpose and dedication to goals bigger than himself and more lasting than ourselves. I am saddened by his passing.

Images of Boseman at Howard University’s 2018 commencement courtesy of Howard University. Read a memorial tribute to Boseman by Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick, MD, MBA, here.

Preventing deaths from colorectal cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. The ACS’s estimates for the number of colorectal cancer cases in the United States for 2020 are:

  • 104,610 new cases of colon cancer
  • 43,340 new cases of rectal cancer

In the United States, colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and in women, and the second most common cause of cancer deaths when men and women are combined. It is expected to cause about 53,200 deaths during 2020. Although the overall death rate has continued to drop, deaths from colorectal cancer among people younger than age 55 have increased 1% per year from 2008 to 2017.

A large proportion of colorectal cancer deaths are preventable when people over the age of 45 are screened regularly. Younger people would not be screened regularly unless they meet certain criteria, such as a strong family history. The ACS page on risk factors for colorectal cancer and what you might be able to do to help lower your risk is here.

The Gillings School works closely with UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center to find the causes of colorectal cancer, overcome barriers to screening and effective treatments, and overcome racial inequities in prevention, screening, treatment and end-of-life .

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.