Chadwick Boseman, ‘Black Panther’ star, died of colon cancer on Friday, August 28, 2020.
Only after his death was it revealed that he was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in 2016. In a statement posted to his Twitter, it says, “A true fighter, Chadwick persevered through it all, and brought you many of the films you have come to love so much. From ‘Marshall’ to ‘Da 5 Bloods’, August Wilson’s ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ and several more, all were filmed during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy. It was the honor of his career to bring King T’Challa to life in Black Panther.”
Four years of fighting cancer, all while working to share his talents with the world. Cancer is hard enough on its own.
As I read through Twitter, people were talking about how you never know what battles people are going through and how important it is to be kind, gentle, and compassionate.
It took me back to a quote I saw as I checked in for my doctor’s appointment within the last year.
The plain piece of paper read:
“Be kind. For everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
It struck a nerve.
Am I kind enough? Did I do something kind today? How have I treated others these past few weeks? What battles are the people in line behind me fighting? What are their stories? What battle is the person who wrote it fighting?
It struck a nerve because over four years ago, my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer, and my world opened to the battles people are fighting. The ones I could see and the ones I could not.
Before the diagnosis, I walked around the world with a different perspective.
Carefree. Self-centered. Impatient.
I interacted with others from a “me” perspective.
How was I impacted? Why did they do that? I don’t understand why that person was angry. I was inconvenienced. Why are they late? They must not care.
Not only is it an unkind way to interact with others, it is also exhausting.
The moment I walked into Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA), my view started changing. It was not immediate. It is not as if a light bulb turned on and everything changed. Each time I entered, every three weeks, for my dad’s treatment, I looked around and sat with the emotions I felt. It was more like a dimmer switch slowly illuminating the room.
Although it is hard to share publicly, I think it’s helpful for others to know the battles we face. It builds empathy and understanding.
This is a tiny part of my story, condensed and woven together through time.
The Parking Garage
I pull a ticket, the gate opens, and I start driving. The person in front of me is driving slowly. In any other garage, I would be annoyed.
In this garage, I remind myself nearly every person entering this space is sick or is a caregiver of a sick person. Some people are treatable, others are not. They may not be back next week.
Driving slowly is the least of our worries. I am confident the person in front of me has enough problems. I wish them well in my head and send them kind energy in my thoughts.
Why can’t I enter every garage that way? I can – it just takes extra thought.
I can pretend every person I encounter is fighting a battle I know nothing about, but the truth is, they are, and I don’t need to pretend. It does not matter that I know nothing about it.
Sanitize my hands. Deep breath. Release the shoulder tension. The elevators run slow. Take this moment before the elevator dings to find extra patience. I need it to transition from work to the hustle of SCCA and cancer’s unpredictability and messiness.
The doors open, I turn the corner, and everyone is moving. Everyone is fighting a battle, except I know a little about this battle, or at least I am learning more and more about it each time.
I see the older folks moving slowly.
Some in wheelchairs, some walking. Some in headbands, some naturally bald. Some with oxygen, some without. Some with healthy looking skin, some changed by cancer. Some by themselves, some with family. Some exhausted, some with a smile, and some exhausted with a smile.
The staff, custodians, medical assistants, nurses, and doctors, normally younger, politely waiting or weaving in between the patients.
And then I see the younger patients. They normally move more quickly. They stand a little taller. Their dress is a little different – did they come from work?
I make my way to the next set of elevators to the fourth floor to wait for my dad’s oncology appointment. I patiently wait behind some people, weave through others, and stand with others for the next elevator.
Some days, we wait in silence.
Some days, someone might smile or crack a joke – often “inappropriate” in “normal” settings, but perfectly created for those impacted by cancer.
On the really good days, we hear a courageous person engage with the person next to them. It might start with an “after you…” as they walk into the elevator and turn into a short conversation. These are not normal elevator conversations about weather or “How are you? Fine, you?”. These are, “I saw my mom earlier, and now I can’t find her. We are supposed to be in an appointment, but she keeps wandering off. Her labs were good today though.” elevator conversations.
Raw, loosely filtered conversations. Say what’s on your mind. Make a connection. Anything less is wasted time when you can form a momentary bond over a battle two people share, separately, but together.
The Elevator Exit
The elevator dings. It’s not like my work elevator where everybody is in a rush to get off while trying to balance the unspoken societal rules of who goes first.
In a cancer elevator, those societal rules don’t work. And everyone moves a little slower.
Older before younger? What if the younger person clearly needs more time?
Wheelchair before cane? How do you factor in age?
In traditional gender expression, woman before man? What if the woman is a healthy doctor and the man is clearly sick?
And then there were the folks who knew they would take a long time getting off the elevator and insisted everyone go before them.
I laughed internally when I entered the elevator with my dad. He still saw himself as the gentleman who had to be the last person off the elevator.
The problem was other people were trying to follow the societal rules, and my dad was clearly older, unstable on his feet, and walked with a cane. Try convincing a stubborn, old man to change over 60 years of habits and exit the elevator before anyone.
I don’t think I ever saw a perfectly executed elevator exit, but when everyone knows a little about the battle you are fighting, they show up with kindness and patience. Unlike my work elevator, nobody ever really cared who went first. It was unimportant. We all knew the person next to us was fighting hundreds, if not thousands, of important battles.
4th Floor – Lung & Gastrointestinal Early Detection Clinics, Oncology Clinic, Hematology Clinic, Sarcoma Clinic, Physical Therapy
We make our way to the check in line. It’s a busy day.
Every day is a busy day.
The person who checks us in is friendly. They are always friendly. They see sick people every day, hearing the struggles, pain, and courage of cancer. They know what a smile can offer and how truly listening to the response of “How are you?” is a gift.
And they do this in less than two minutes.
We look for three open spots: my dad, mom, and me. We usually can find them together.
We chat for a few minutes. Then, we wait.
We wait longer.
We wait even longer.
It’s okay. They almost always run late. We are usually the last appointment, which we request, so I can attend while missing less work.
I can see the lake through the floor-to-ceiling windows. I wish I was in a kayak or on a sailboat. My friend has a sailboat – I wonder if he is out today.
As we wait, I watch. I watch people of different ages and who is with them. I eavesdrop on conversations. I see really sick people. I see sick people who appear healthy. If I passed them on the street, I’d never know.
But, here we are, in a building of shared battles.
I see someone who I can only assume is my age. That’s a punch to my gut. That’s a battle I know nothing about.
Over the years, I’ve probably sat in this room for over 20 hours, mostly scrolling through my phone, watching and listening to others.
I heard about how someone uprooted their life from Alaska and are in Seattle for a few months for treatment because they do not have the same treatment at home. I listened to how the insurance company denied another claim even though they received the same treatment before and it was covered. I overheard a phone conversation about work because work doesn’t stop just because cancer is in your life.
Do you know the expression, “if these walls could talk?”
I did not need to imagine. This waiting room showed a glimpse of what life was like for others. I heard first hand the battles they were fighting and could empathize because we were experiencing something similar. I know other people heard our stories, too.
“Mr. Appel”, said a loud voice. We passed others as we made our way to the medical assistant to check my dad’s height and weight before we went back to the room.
The Oncology Room
The room is sterile, as it should be.
We wait more. Hurry up and wait. That is the name of the game.
Today, we might see the nurse practitioner. Or, it might be the oncologist. If we are lucky, both. Each brings something different to the table.
The nurse practitioner is bubblier. She handles my dad’s dry humor well. She asks more questions about his personal life and gives him the floor to talk through non-medical issues. She takes a genuine interest in the stories about my dad’s cat. I feel gratitude when we see her because I know her compassion makes my dad’s day.
The oncologist is blunt, yet kind. She wants to know everything wrong medically and find ways to alleviate every pain possible. She also takes a genuine interest in the stories about my dad’s cat. Her thoroughness, while still making time to listen, makes my dad feel well taken care of.
They see the battles people fight every day. They are a part of the battles. They know more than some close friends and family members.
I imagine what it must be like to share in their patients’ struggles. I wonder what it must be like to deliver life-changing, awful news. I reflect on what it must feel like to refer a patient to hospice knowing there is nothing more to be done. And, I think about the good news celebrated while knowing the patient is almost always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I know they have their own battles, too. They are different from ours, but they are battles.
We review the labs. If a scan was ordered, we review those results. They do an exam on my dad. If everything is normal, they say “Everything is normal”, my dad jokes back, “that’s not a word people use to describe me”, and we go to the 5th floor, infusion.
5th Floor – Apheresis, Clinical Trial Unit, Infusion, Pharmacy, Patient Supply Center
We take the elevator again. There is always less chit-chat than the first floor because people are reflecting on conversations with their doctor.
Strangely, you can almost never tell who received good news or bad news. Most people have a similar, worn out look by this time.
Except, the people who are crying.
It’s rare, but it happens. And, there is little stigma about crying in this building. It’s done more openly, people do not stare, and you can feel the empathy and energy being directed by everyone on the floor to that person.
We walk off the elevator to the check in line. Different people, same friendliness as before. We receive a pager. We might ask how far behind they are running today. A good day is 15 minutes. A bad day might be 45 minutes.
We look for three open spots: my dad, mom, and me. We usually can find them together.
Depending on the news we received, we may chat for a few minutes. We might sit in silence because we are still processing. Either way, we’ll watch and listen to others while looking at the lake.
We wait longer.
We wait even longer.
Buzzz, buzzz, buzzz. The pager goes off. It’s time to pump my dad full of pembrolizumab, also known as KEYTRUDA, which on the insurance statement says the list price is over $10,000.
We return the pager, they tell us what room he is in, and we walk the halls of the infusion area.
As we pass each room, we see sick people. Some people have their lights off and nap because treatment can last two hours. Others are watching movies. Others are chatting with a friend or family member. Quite a few people read.
We arrive at my dad’s room. We settle into the room. Even though his actual infusion time is 30 minutes, short compared to most treatments, the process usually lasts an hour and a half to two hours.
The nurse comes by to take vitals and let us know they already placed the order with the pharmacy. This is the normal back up. Pharmacy can run very behind, sometimes over an hour.
At this point, I usually offer to heat up my dad’s food in the snack area. I walk by more rooms. I wonder about their stories. What battles are they fighting? Who will beat cancer? Who is terminal?
I walk by the nurse’s station. They are special individuals. They see the toxic medicine pumped into hundreds of people per day. They keep the infusion area running smoothly, empathetic that the pharmacy is always behind, and covering for each other when needed.
I have no idea how they do it.
On top of that, most are cheeky and know the exact words to say when my dad is sarcastic. The nurses always won those light-hearted battles.
Pharmacy arrives. Then, the nurses come back. There are always two because they double check everything.
They’ll look at how long the pembrolizumab needs to run – 30 minutes. My dad normally says, “Yes, I am the lucky one. I hardly have any side effects – not like chemo. I’m quick – in and out – unlike the people who have to stay for hours.”
Even in my dad’s battle, in this moment, he considers himself lucky, despite the fact that the five year survival rate is about 5%.
We’ll chat more. I’ll show recent photos of hiking or other adventures. A few times palliative care will come. Those are always very difficult and rewarding conversations.
At the end of 30 minutes, the nurse will come back, flush the line, and we’ll leave. My parents will join rush hour traffic for about a two hour commute home. I’ll head home; my commute is much shorter.
It’s quieter. The lobby has fewer people, though some remain waiting for treatment. It’s about 6 or 6:30 p.m. The staff are leaving. Custodians are cleaning.
The entire building has a different feel to it. It’s hard to describe. It’s like the end of a heart wrenching movie: beautiful and ugly, grateful and disturbed, wired and exhausted.
We ride two elevators to the parking garage. Sometimes it is just us or another couple – no elevator shuffle or societal rules to disturb.
We hug goodbye. They’ll text me when they get home.
I go to my car. Some days I drive home immediately. Other days, I break down crying. In both cases, I’m exhausted.
And yet strangely, grateful to learn about the battles everyone is fighting. Be kind – it’s easier when you have these experiences. I know I am more patient than when I entered.
If my parents are in front of me at the parking station, they’ll often pay for me. Sometimes I pay it forward to the car behind me. A few times, usually on the worst days, I pay for a couple cars behind me. In a way, it’s selfish, but it makes me feel better. The fact that there is a small chance it helped make their day even a tiny bit better makes it worthwhile.
The Drive Home
I exit the parking garage and join the line of cars waiting to cross one of the busiest intersections in Seattle. Normally, I’d be impatient.
After everything I saw today, there is no point. I won’t get home any faster. I start to wonder who around me has cancer or been affected by cancer.
I finally make it home. Dinner, relaxing, and then bed.
I try to take in the feelings of the day and remind myself to approach each day with the kindness and compassion I felt today. I know it won’t be top of mind tomorrow. I know it will be a challenge.
I have to remind myself each day there are people fighting a battle I know nothing about. My default should be gentleness, kindness, and compassion.
Why? Think about all the awful, tragic events that happen in your life each year. Consider that in the United States:
- It’s estimated 1.8 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year.
- There are 433,648 victims of rape and sexual assault each year.
- In 2017, 2,813,503 people died.
These are events with easy statistics. I haven’t figured out the statistical likelihood, but my guess is there are very good odds you will encounter someone who experienced a huge life change this year. How could your kindness change their day?
Think for a moment about the racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic interactions people endure.
People walk around this world fighting different battles. We can make it easier on each other. Who knows what impact you will have?
In fact, Denzel Washington paid for Chadwick Boseman to attend a summer program at Oxford to study theater while attending Howard University. It was random and anonymous at the time. Only after he returned did he get a letter letting him know his benefactor.
You can see Denzel discuss it here:
Did that gift change his future? Who knows.
The gift may have impacted his life and that is all that matters.
What does any of this have to do with money?
Everything. Or nothing. It’s up to you how you want to think about it.
For me, money is not a means to an end. It’s a tool. It buys your time back. It allows you to change things. It gives you flexibility and freedom to do what you want on your own terms.
It’s also a gift. Use it wisely.
Show gratitude. Give to others. You never know how a small donation, gift, or offering could impact someone else’s life.
And most of all, be kind. For everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.