Durham filmmaker Michael Washington is used to seeing the world through a different lens, but he was forced to take a hard look at his own health when he was diagnosed with kidney cancer at 26. Washington’s experience ultimately led him to his passion project, a film that helps other men take charge of their health and wellbeing.
Washington, 36, now a married father of two, was 26 when his then-girlfriend (and now wife), Bria, pointed out an abnormality in his abdominal area. He had been working out more and was seeing changes in his body, but for the better, he initially thought. Then she pointed out a firm bump under his skin.
“[Bria] said ‘if you want to be with me, go to the doctor,’” he said. “I went to a UNC physician, and it was the first time I’d had a physical since I was 19. Everything checked out, and the doctor asked if there was anything else.”
Remembering Bria’s words, Washington mentioned the bump. An ultrasound detected a mass on his kidney, and Washington found himself in the care of UNC Lineberger’s Eric Wallen, MD. Wallen moved quickly, scheduling Washington for surgery that same week. The surgical team removed an 8-pound tumor, and Washington jokingly named it “Samson Rutherford Washington,” since it was around the same weight as one of his future children.
Washington and Bria were married a year later. “I’ve been cancer free since that moment,” Washington said. “I don’t want to call myself a survivor, but I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her.”
Washington also credits his care team at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital, the clinical home of UNC Lineberger, with helping make his experience so positive.
“Dr. Wallen is one of the nicest guys in the world, and if you talk to other people, there are so many people who love and admire him,” he said. “He’s more than a great surgeon; he’s a person in your life. I’m a Tar Heel, it was home, and it was family.”
Taking care, taking control
Washington, a natural born storyteller, had always loved words, and from that grew his love of film. After his surgery, he knew there was a story in all this, in his experience as a cancer patient and as a husband and father. He reflected on his own health experiences and that of his father, who had a heart attack at 42, despite being in seemingly good health. “It forever changed my family,” Washington said.
And that’s when the idea began to take shape. Washington began to see a throughline from family to health and to make the connection that loving your family means loving yourself enough to be there for them and take charge of your health for that reason.
“When you become a husband, a father, and looking at health from this perspective, you love something,” he said. “You engage in your health because you love someone. There’s something in this life you live. You can’t be there if you’re not taking care of yourself.”
Washington said while his kidney cancer was a surprise, there were some warning signs he should have taken more seriously, but he just shrugged them off. He found that his own story mirrored that of so many men in his own life, and those he would meet while making his film “Save the Dad Bod.”
“Save the Dad Bod”
Teaming up with Wallen outside the clinic this time, Washington began working on his project to promote men’s health, filming men going through health experiences, including former Chapel Hill mayor Harold Lee and Olympic gold medalist Phil Ford. The COVID-19 pandemic actually helped the story to take shape, as Washington was able to gain access to interview subjects who would usually be too busy to sit for an interview.
The stories were eerily similar. “Every guy thought the same thing,” Washington said. “ ‘I didn’t know about health care, health insurance.’ ‘My father told me to go, and I didn’t listen.’ Your reason for not going is that you’re going to find out something.”
Washington strives to be an advocate for men’s health, and he hopes his film strikes a chord with other men. He said hearing from patients about their reluctance to see a physician, and doctors lamenting the deadly progression of curable conditions left untreated, will encourage men to overcome their hesitancy and take care of their health.
“I realized I’m not doing enough. You beat cancer, by the grace of God,” he said of himself. “My diagnosis gave me what a lot of people don’t have, a new perspective and a second chance. You need to take this seriously. It’s on you. It’s no longer hypothetical; it’s a lifetime mission.”
Finishing the film in 2020, Washington added the finishing touches, including his own voice as a narrator. “This is a story that’s been 25 years in the making. Someone had to shout it out,” he said.
For information on screenings of the film, please visit the Argyle Rebel Films website