What Young Black People Need To Know About Colon Cancer Right Now

Last week, the sudden passing of actor Chadwick Boseman at the age of 43 sent shock waves through the Black community. Following the news of the Black Panther star’s untimely death from colon (or colorectal) cancer, many fans across the world were left asking why and how this happened – and seeking to better understand the illness that took the life an actor truly living out his purpose? Boseman’s death as a Black man at such a young age left many wondering if colon cancer disproportionately impacts the Black community, and if so, in what specific ways?

According to the American Cancer Society, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to get colorectal cancer and 40 percent more likely to die from it than other groups, making proper screenings and early diagnosis extremely important for Black people. Black men also have the highest incidence rate.

“Colorectal cancer is the second deadliest cancer in the country,” said Durado Brooks, M.D., who serves as VP of Prevention and Early Detection at the American Cancer Society. “This disease is ravaging the Black community and it is as important as ever that everyone has access to and is receiving the recommended screenings. Even during the coronavirus pandemic, necessary screening tests remain available to prevent the disease or find it at an early, more treatable stage.”

A woman of African descent and her doctor are indoors in a medical clinic. The woman is sitting and describing her symptoms to the doctor.

Now more than ever, it’s important for Black people to be vigilant about their health, and proactively learn the stats that send the biggest warning signs. Here are a few things that Black people need to know about colon cancer right now.

In 2020, 12 percent of diagnosed colorectal cancer cases will be found in people under 50 – about 18,000 cases. Since the mid-1980s adults aged 20-39 have experienced the steepest increase in colorectal cancer rates. What are the causes for these increases?

“There’s a lot of research going on trying to pin down the likely causes of those increases,” shares Dr. Brooks. “We’ve seen a very dramatic rise in obesity rates over the last 30 years or so. And obesity is a risk factor for colorectal cancer. We’ve seen a very significant rise in type II diabetes and most people don’t appreciate that this is a risk factor for colorectal cancer. We also have an increased consumption of red meat and processed meats now compared to prior generations, and again those are linked to colorectal cancer.”

“There has been a dramatic decrease in the use of aspirin, particularly in children,” he continues. “And aspirin and compounds actually are protective against colorectal cancer and they can help prevent the growth of pre-cancerous polyps and help prevent the growth of cancer, but because of something called RISE syndrome which first came into widespread recognition in the late 70s/early 80s and it occurs in children when they’re given aspirin at times. Therefore there was a market decrease in the use of aspirin in children and there are some who question whether that may be contributing. Hormones have some impact on the potential core development in colorectal cancer and alot of our food supply is now impacted by hormones used in particular to help make livestock grow faster. The same is true of antibiotics both in the food supply and general medical practice.”

What do Black people need to know/do to protect themselves against colorectal cancer?

There are a number of lifestyle issues that can decrease the risk of developing colorectal cancer. According to Dr. Brooks, some of those lifestyle changes include, “limiting red meat consumption and limiting alcohol intake (because alcohol is actually a risk factor). Anything more than one drink a day in women and two drinks a day for men increases risk. Also: Avoid tobacco use, maintain a healthy body weight, avoid obesity and make sure you’re doing regular physical activity — all of those are effective.”

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When should people get screened for colorectal cancer?

The American Cancer Society recommends that people with average risk begin regular screening at age 45. Dr. Brooks urges Black patients to get screened even if your doctor doesn’t suggest or recommend it. “Most adults seem to be aware of the fact that there are screening tests for colorectal cancer, he says. “Many adults are reluctant to get screened and don’t view it as a priority for themselves. There’s still a lot of misconception that if you’re not having symptoms then you don’t need to worry about it. That is absolutely false. Early colorectal cancer and precancerous polyps seldom have symptoms so you don’t want to wait for symptoms to develop.”

What are the risk factors for colorectal cancer that would make someone get screened before the age of 45?

“There are certain medical conditions and family history factors that increase your chance of developing colorectal cancer, and increase your chance of developing it early,” Dr. Brooks states. Some of these factors include: Family history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps, personal history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps, personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease), known family history of a hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome (also known as hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer or HNPCC), personal history of radiation to the abdomen (belly) or pelvic area to treat a prior cancer. However, according to Dr. Brooks he doesn’t believe that family history is a big part of why we’re seeing the rise in early onset colorectal cancer.

What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?

While knowing the symptoms is important, Dr. Brooks urges that, “waiting for symptoms is the absolute wrong thing to do. You want to get screened so you have no symptoms. Once you have symptoms there’s a chance the disease is more advanced.” These symptoms however include: abdominal or gastro-intestinal symptoms such as a change in bowel habits that lasts for more than a few days; rectal bleeding; blood in the stool; cramping or abdominal pain; weakness and fatigue; or unintended weight loss should consult with their doctor. Screening can prevent colorectal cancer by finding and removing growth, called polyps, in the colon and rectum before they become cancer. It can also find colorectal cancer early, when it is small, hasn’t spread and may be easier to treat. When found early, before it has spread, the 5-year relative survival rate is 90%.


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