Chadwick Boseman and Colon Cancer: The World Knew No Better

This one hit differently.

In 2016, I received the ecstatic news of being accepted into my Genetic Counseling Graduate Program at the University of Minnesota. In 2016, Chadwick Boseman received the devastating news of being diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. It would take 4 years for the world to find out.

In 2018, I was juggling academic courses, clinical rotations, and more or less learning how to be a functional adult. In 2018, Chadwick Boseman walked down the red carpet at the premier of Black Panther to the cheering of the world.

One of the few reprieves I had during my time at graduate school was the occasional movie night at St. Anthony Main Theatre, a historic theater just a few steps from the Mississippi River. I watched Dr. Strange in this theater. I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in this theater. I also watched Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok in this theater. And of course, I watched Black Panther in this theater.

Black Panther was hailed as the first Marvel film with a predominantly African American cast. As a person of color, I was over the moon with this – much like how I felt when Crazy Rich Asians was announced to be in production. Because representation matters. Because it was time for people of color to be appropriately represented on the big screen. Because people of color have so much to offer the world. Regardless of where you place Black Panther on your Best Marvel Film of All-Time list – and no, we are not having this conversation because time… unless we are talking about Thor: The Dark World, we all know where that one goes – it is not too far of a stretch to say the film inspired and empowered a whole new generation.

For me, I cheered at the top of my lungs and practically dragged everyone to watch the film with me. For Chadwick Boseman, he was two years into his battle with colon cancer. But it would be another two years before the world found out.

Boseman visited St. Jude’s children hospital to visit pediatric cancer patients when he was battling cancer himself.

Since Black Panther, I have moved back to Washington State and became a full-fledged genetic counselor. I work in cancer clinics to provide specialty genetic care for individuals with a cancer diagnosis and individuals with a family history of cancers. It is common for me to meet with a person with colon cancer or a person with colon cancer in the family. I would ask how many family members have been diagnosed with colon cancer. I would then ask how old those family members were when they were diagnosed with colon cancer. I would also ask if there are any family history of ovarian, uterine or other cancers. I ask because these cancers can all be connected.

Since Black Panther, Chadwick Boseman has completed at least four more films, including Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Let that sink in for a moment. He worked and filmed physically demanding roles while undergoing countless surgeries and chemotherapy. Most people I have met in cancer clinics struggled to get out of bed during their treatments, let alone doing stunts on set. While the world celebrated the triumphant return of Black Panther in Endgame after being dusted at the end of Infinity War, Chadwick Boseman was battling stage III colon cancer that eventually progressed into stage IV. The world knew no better.

On August 28, 2020, an official statement was released on Chadwick Boseman’s social media accounts, shocking the world with the news that he had left us. I was in the middle of a League of Legends game when the news came across my Twitter feed. My first thought: This can’t be true. Then I fell into this black hole of the same feeling of distraught and panic as I did when Twitter blew up over Kobe Bryant’s tragic passing in February. I read the official statement once. Then twice. And a third time. I could not wrap my head around it.

Chadwick Boseman was so young, surely it couldn’t have been… stage IV colon cancer. He would have been only 39 or so when he received his initial diagnosis. It is not possible for someone so young to get colon cancer, is it? But I know better. I see this in cancer clinics. On autopilot, my brain started sprouting questions I was taught to ask. Did he have a family history of colon cancer? Did he have a family history of other cancers? If yes, how old were those family members when they were diagnosed? Could he and his family have a hereditary cancer syndrome like Lynch syndrome

Lynch syndrome, also called hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC) syndrome, is a hereditary cancer syndrome characterized by an increased risk to develop certain cancers. This can include colon, uterine, ovarian, brain, stomach and other gastrointestinal (GI) cancers.

When a pattern of early-onset cancers is observed in a family, typically a referral is made to a genetic counselor to evaluate for the possibility of a hereditary cancer syndrome. Lynch syndrome is caused by harmful changes in one of five genes: MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, PMS2, and EPCAM. Due to the increased risk of developing cancers, all individuals who have Lynch syndrome are offered additional surveillance, preventative measures, and screening.

General recommendations for individuals with Lynch syndrome can include earlier and more frequent colonoscopies to look for colon polyps which may grow into colon cancers, endoscopy to examine the stomach and duodenum for stomach and other upper GI cancers, screening and preventative options for gynecological cancers, annual urine test to screen for urinary tract cancers, and regular physical exams with a neurological evaluation for brain cancers. These recommendations can be life-saving in cancer prevention and early detection. 

I immediately messaged one of my classmates asking whether or not she thought Chadwick Boseman met with a genetic counselor and underwent genetic testing for Lynch syndrome. She responded, “Surely he did. Must have had the best doctors and he was so young.” He must have, right? We may never know if Chadwick Boseman had Lynch syndrome or other hereditary cancer risk factors. But I think his diagnosis and passing opened the eyes of billions to the reality of cancer. In many more ways than one, Chadwick Boseman was a hero on and off the screen. Little can bring us comfort in knowing someone so full of promise was taken away from us so soon. We can, however, take solace in the fact that even as he ended his journey on this earth, he left us one more important message: the impact of a cancer diagnosis and the awareness we need to have, for ourselves and our families, against this unseen enemy before it is too late.  

To Chadwick Boseman’s family: Thank you for sharing someone as brilliant as Chadwick with the world. It was an honor to see him bring King T’Challa to life.

To Chadwick Boseman: Thank you for being my cheerleader as I struggled through graduate school. Thank you for everything you did on and off screen. Thank you for being an inspiration to many while you fought your own battle silently. Your legacy will live on. Rest in peace. 

Wakanda Forever.