The death of famed actor Chadwick Boseman from colorectal cancer has brought attention to the disease that hits Blacks at a higher rate than other racial groups. It has no cure but can be successfully treated and managed, an expert said.
Colorectal cancer or colon cancer occurs when the colon or rectum, a part of the large intestine, became malignant, according to studies from the American Cancer Society (ACS). The cancer increases when polyps develop on the colon and they aren’t treated in a timely fashion, the ACS says.
Signs and symptoms include blood in the stool, a change in bowel movements, weight loss and feelings of constant tiredness. ACS studies reveal risk factors include diet, obesity, smoking and lack of physical activity. Dietary factors increasing the risk of getting the disease include the consumption of red meat, processed meat and alcohol.
Treatment for the disease include a combination of surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. The ACS said a colonoscopy, an examination looking into abnormalities and changes in the colonthrough the anus, remains the most common method of detecting the disease.
Globally, according to the cancer society, colon cancer ranks as the third most common type of cancer making up 10 percent of all cases.
In the wake of Boseman’s death, the cancer society issued a statement noting, “what most don’t know is that Chadwick Boseman sat at the intersection of where colorectal cancer rates are among the highest and rising the fastest.”
“He was a young man,” the statement said. “And he was a Black man. African Americans are 20 percent more likely to get colorectal cancer and 40 percent more likely to die from it than any other group. Black men have the highest incidence rate.”
The statement noted rates of colorectal cancer in younger age groups are rising. In 2020, the statement said 12 percent of colon cancer will be diagnosed in people under 50 — about 18,000 cases.
Dr. Elmer Huerta, former president of the American Cancer Society and director of the Cancer Preventorium at the George Washington University Cancer Center, is a professor of medicine at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Huerta told the Informer what happened to Boseman could happen to anyone who doesn’t pay attention to the symptoms.
“It is my guess that he, like many others, aren’t getting their colon examined,” he said. “You have to find the cancerous polyps that develop and if you find them early, treatment can take place and the cancer will not spread. I recommend everyone get a colon exam annually.”
Huerta also suggested there are cultural factors that explain why colon cancer incidence is so high among some groups.
“At one time, it was thought to be unpolite to talk about things such as the colon, feces and polyps in public,” he said. “What needs to happen is a good public relations campaign should be waged to inform people about colon cancer and to make it clear that this is one of the preventable cancers. There are no early detection or prevention programs that are widespread.
“One thing that is clear, young people are getting it at an increasing rate. There was a time when doctors would recommend you test for the disease at 50 but now that has been moved up to 45 and Mr. Boseman, who was 43, serves as an example as to why people in that age range need to be tested.”
In addition to testing, Huerta said lifestyle plays a role in avoiding colon cancer.
“Living a healthy lifestyle can be a strong factor in preventing colon cancer,” he said. “People should eat more fruit, vegetables and whole grains and stay away from processed food. Obesity is a trigger for colon cancer also therefore exercise should be a part of people’s regimen.”