If an actor is defined by the roles he or she takes on, then by all accounts Chadwick Boseman was a man defined by dignity, strength and justice. Playing Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and the Black Panther, among others, Boseman’s talents were undeniable – as were the many ways in which he chose to share his gifts both on and off the screen.

His death last week of colon cancer at the age of 43 stopped me in my tracks – not just because it was a tragic loss of a talented person in their prime – but because the same disease has wreaked havoc in the lives of my family and friends. It claims more lives each year than any other cancer but lung cancer. It is also one of the most heritable cancers out there.  So as both my father and his two brothers died of the disease, I am at a particularly high risk.

In reading Boseman’s obituary, it was hard not to notice the critical roles others had played in his life. He attributed his work ethic to watching his father tirelessly work two jobs. His brother was a dancer – blazing a nontraditional path in the arts for him to follow. A friend of his was shot and killed in high school instilling within him a strong sense of justice. After enrolling at Howard University, he and other students were accepted into a prestigious acting program at Oxford.  Unable to afford the trip, his instructor Phylicia Rashad and Denzel Washington paid the expenses for all the students.

His role models extended to people he never met, such as Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and Prince.

Who comes in and out of our lives and the roles they play are often beyond our control.  So too is the role of fortune – both good and bad.

What we can control is the roles we choose to play, in service not only of our own goals, but to benefit the lives of others.  

A minor role, I’ll choose to play now is one of a health advocate. While deadly, colon cancer is also one of the most preventable and treatable diseases – provided it is diagnosed early enough. Make sure you know your family’s history of disease. Talk to your doctor. Ask about what age you should get screened. Watch your diet (check out this book, How Not to Die, which is a helpful resource collecting research on how diet can help prevent the fifteen most deadly diseases).   

For reasons too long to get into here, I learned late in life about my own family’s history.  But that knowledge may have saved my life. It spurred me to get regular screenings that led to the detection and removal of several pre-cancerous growths.  

It is a reminder that the fundamental fact of life is that it is finite. This reality should give us pause to reflect on the roles we have played in the lives of others to date.  And provide the impetus to do whatever we must to ensure that we can continue to play these roles as long as we are needed.

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