Chadwick Boseman’s Legacy: Colon Cancer Awareness
BY JENN FISHER
For fans of actor Chadwick Boseman, the phrase “Wakanda Forever” has taken on poignant new meaning. News of the 43-year old Boseman’s death from colon cancer has dominated social media with questions about how someone so young could have had colon cancer, let alone died from it.
“Mr. Boseman is a great loss. He was a fine actor, and by all accounts a fine human being,” says Brian Stello, MD, family medicine physician with Valley Health Partners (VHP). Boseman brought superhero character “King T’Challa/Black Panther” (from MARVEL’s The Black Panther film franchise) to the screen, as well as powerfully portrayed real-life American barrier-breakers and leaders Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall in recent popular films.
The actor’s death has shocked many – but his passing also has sparked the start of important conversations about colorectal cancer and how you can protect yourself and the ones you love.
Colorectal cancer risk factors
While 90 percent of the estimated 147,000 new colon cancer cases that will be diagnosed this year will occur in people older than 50, younger people are not immune from colon cancer. “It’s important to note that Black men in general are at risk for developing colorectal cancer at a younger age,” Stello says.
Maged Khalil, MD, medical oncologist with LVPG Hematology Oncology and Associate Director of Clinical Research with Lehigh Valley Cancer Institute says the incidence of colorectal cancer has increased significantly in adults ages 40-50 and is rising among young adults 20-39. “Those under age 50 who are diagnosed with colorectal cancer often have more advanced disease. The reason for this trend is unclear, but 35 percent of these young adult cancers are associated with known hereditary colorectal cancer syndromes, like familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and Lynch syndrome (hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer [HNPCC]), which are the most common of the inherited colon cancer syndromes,” Khalil says.
Family history also plays an important role, according to Khalil. “Having just one first-degree relative – parent, sibling or child – with colorectal cancer increases your risk by twofold over that of the general population,” he says.
And your personal health history is important too, especially if you have a condition like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, among others. “There is a well-documented association between inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer, with the extent, duration and activity of disease being the primary determinants. However, there is evidence that treatment for inflammatory colitis may help decrease colorectal cancer risk,” Khalil says.
Boseman’s family has not shared if he had any of these condition-related risk factors.
Cancer-fighting power: Colonoscopy
Colonoscopy is regarded as the gold standard screening tool for detecting any cancerous changes that may occur in the colon or rectum. This procedure also allows for the removal of benign polyps (growths) that may line the colon and potentially develop into cancer.
You and your primary care provider should discuss your risk for colorectal cancer and a screening method to help detect it. Colonoscopy is recommended for adults (45 and older) who have an average risk for colorectal cancer. If you have a colonoscopy and no polyps are detected, your next colonoscopy would occur 10 years later, provided you don’t have symptoms associated with colorectal cancer in those intervening years.
Other screenings are available, though they have limitations (compared to colonoscopy). Those screenings include:
Fecal immunochemical test (FIT)
Where test is done: At home; sample sent to lab
Looks for: Hidden blood in stool
Multi-target stool DNA (MT-sDNA) screening
Frequency: Every three years
Where test is done: At home; sample sent to lab
Looks for: Biomarkers associated with colorectal cancer
Computed tomography colonography (CTC)
Frequency: Every five years
Where test is done: Radiology department
Looks for: Any growths or changes in the large bowel or rectum
“Though these other methods can be used by people who are at average risk, if any screening test comes back as positive, it should be followed up with a diagnostic colonoscopy,” Stello says.
Pay attention: Signs of colorectal cancer
Colorectal cancer is highly treatable in early stages – it also does not cause noticeable symptoms early on. Pay attention to any of these signs of colorectal cancer and speak with your primary care provider about them:
Weight loss you cannot control
Blood in your stools that make them appear a dark color
Change in bowel habits, which may include frequent diarrhea or narrow stools
Feeling the urge to have a bowel movement after just having one
Cramping in your belly
Help reduce your risk
In addition to knowing your family history and having regular screenings for colorectal cancer, there are some ways you can improve the health of your colon.
“I talk to my patients about making lifestyle changes to reduce their risk for colorectal cancer,” Stello says. “These changes include eating a diet high in fresh fruits, vegetables and fiber; low in red meat and processed meats. Regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and limiting alcohol also may help reduce your risk,” he says.
You can do it
Talk with your doctor or health care provider about your family history and any concerns you have about your poop habits or unexplained pain or weight loss. Also, don’t let fear of prep for a colonoscopy prevent you from getting this important screening. You can do it. And if cancer is detected, earlier stage diagnosis is always preferable to improve your odds of beating colorectal cancer.
To learn more about screening for colorectal cancer and LVHN screening locations, visit LVHN.org/colonoscopy.