As the superhero in “Black Panther,” actor Chadwick Boseman was fierce, but his recent death, at 43, represents a frightening national trend showing increases in the number of younger people with colon cancer.
Boseman — who also starred as baseball legend Jackie Robinson in “42,” singer James Brown in “Get on Up” and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall” – kept his 2016 diagnosis private, filming between surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy. (Above, Boseman in a scene from “Black Panther.”)
Colorectal cancer, the second-leading cause of cancer-related death after lung cancer, will be diagnosed in about 105,000 people this year, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). About 12 percent, or 18,000 people, will be younger than 50. These cases are usually more advanced and, therefore, more deadly. A 2 percent annual uptick in this population’s rates counters 3 percent annual drops in rates for older adults.
Such knowledge drives a need to educate and encourage screening for anyone with risk factors.
“A growing emphasis on early screening and prevention is making great strides in reducing the rate of incidence and mortality,” said Dr. Christine Bartus, a colorectal surgeon with the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute.
The ACS recommends that Americans at average risk for colorectal cancer – which is caused by polyps in the digestive tract that, if left unchecked, can become cancerous and spread to other parts of the body — start screening by stool-based testing or colonoscopy at age 45. Those at higher risk, based on family history of the disease, should speak to their provider about starting screening earlier.
“Screening has made a huge difference in being able to detect and remove polyps and lesions before they become cancerous,” said Dr. Bartus. “According to the ACS, incidence of colorectal cancer in the U.S. has dropped by 30 percent over the last 10 years – a tribute to the growing awareness about the importance of colorectal screening.”
If found early, colon cancer is curable. About 50 percent of those with colon cancer will be diagnosed at stages I or II, where the five-year survival rate is 90 percent. At Stage III, that drops to 75 percent, and, at Stage IV, to 10 to 15 percent. Boseman’s cancer was diagnosed at Stage III and progressed.
Dr. Maria Johnson, a gastroenterologist at MidState Medical Center, said studies by the National Cancer Institute found that colonoscopy can reduce risk of death from colorectal cancer by 60 to 70 percent.
“Sometimes symptoms do not manifest until the cancer is well advanced. If results are normal, subsequent screenings are recommended every 10 years,” she said.
Adults of any age should be aware of the signs of colorectal cancer, which include:
- Rectal bleeding.
- Change in bowel habits.
- Unintentional weight loss of 10 pounds or more.
- Blood in stool.
- Abdominal cramping.
There are ways you can prevent colorectal cancer, according to Dr. Bartus, who suggested:
- Eating a healthy diet low in sugar, fat, red meat and alcohol.
- Knowing your family history.
- Exercising regularly.
- Maintaining a healthy weight.
- Getting regular screenings when over the age of 45.
- Stopping tobacco use.