What You Should Know About Colon Cancer

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
What You Should Know About Colon Cancer

On August 28, 2020, Chadwick Boseman, the actor who starred in Black Panther and numerous other films, died after a four-year battle with colon cancer. He was just 43 years old. He kept his disease largely a secret as he filmed award-winning films and supported children undergoing their own cancer treatments.

He fought a battle against a cancer that is largely unknown and largely considered a disease that targets older people, though it is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States for men and women combined, and on the rise for adults younger than 50.

In the days since his death, more people than ever are asking questions about colon cancer. Here’s what we should know.

What Is Colon Cancer?

American Cancer Society/Getty

According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is cancer that starts in the colon. It is often grouped together with rectal cancer, which starts in the rectum, because they have a number of features in common. Both cancers originate in parts of the body that are involved in the digestive system, specifically the end of the digestive system where food is broken down. Both cancers also tend to grow slowly over a number of years, beginning with a growth called a polyp. Removing the polyp early may keep it from becoming cancerous.

Who Is At Risk of Developing Colon Cancer?

A risk factor is anything that may increase your risk of developing a certain type of cancer. Different risk factors are associated with different cancers. It’s important to remember that having a risk factor does not guarantee that you will develop a particular cancer. Not having a risk factor does not ensure that you will not develop the cancer.

Certain lifestyle factors are associated with increased risk. Being overweight, not being physically active, eating a diet high in red meat or processed food, smoking, and alcohol use are all known risk factors for colon cancer. Likewise, age, family background, and history of inflammatory bowel disease serve as risk factors.

When Is Screening Recommended?

The American Cancer Society recommends that everyone get regular colon cancer screenings beginning at 45 years old. Those with a family history of colon cancer should begin getting tested at the earlier of either age 40 or ten years younger than whatever age their family member was diagnosed.

Dr. Robin B. Mendelsohn, co-director of the Center for Young Onset Colorectal Cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in an interview for the New York Times recommended “early screening also for people with a history of inflammatory bowel disease, like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, and for people who have previously received radiation in their abdomen or pelvis.”

A screening can be either testing on stool samples or an image-based test, such as a colonoscopy.

What Symptoms To Look Out For?

Andrei Orlov/Getty

As with many cancers, colon cancer may grow for some time before it begins to show any symptoms. But if symptoms are present, the American Cancer Society suggests these are some to look out for: a change in bowel habits, like diarrhea or constipation that lasts for more than a few days, rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, cramping, abdominal pain, weakness, fatigue, and unintended weight loss.

The Growing Risk For Younger People

A study published in 2019 found that “[t]he proportion of persons diagnosed with CRC [colorectal cancer] at an age younger than 50 years in the United States has continued to increase over the past decade, and younger adults present with more advanced disease.” That means that not only are younger people being diagnosed with the disease, they are also presenting at a later, harder to treat and survive stage.

“The five-year survival rate for young people for early-stage disease is 94 percent,” said Rebecca L. Siegel, the scientific director of surveillance research at the American Cancer Society, told the New York Times.

That’s encouraging. But that number dips to 20 percent in late stage disease. The problem arises when young people ignore symptoms—maybe because discussing issues in and around the colon and rectum are embarrassing or carry some sort of stigma. Maybe because doctors don’t instantly suspect colon cancer in younger patients.

Researchers aren’t sure why the proportion of younger people being diagnosed with the disease is growing. Lifestyle factors are suspected, but experts aren’t convinced that’s the only reason. Until more is known, paying attention to symptoms, having an honest conversation with your doctor, and getting regular screenings are the best defenses against this disease.

Racial Disparities In Colon Cancer

The rate of new cases in non-Hispanic Black people was nearly 20 percent higher than the rate of new cases for non-Hispanic white people.

“African-Americans are 40 percent more likely to die from colorectal cancer. It’s because of later-stage diagnosis, it’s because of systemic racism and all that this population has been dealing with for hundreds of years,” Ms. Siegel told the New York Times.

Chadwick Boseman was an incredible actor, and by all accounts, an even more incredible soul. His death is a tragedy. I am loathe to say his death shines a light on a disease that’s only well known to those who’ve lived it, or who’ve lost someone to it, because death isn’t a teaching moment. His family and friends are in pain and grieving. Much of the world is grieving.

But awareness is important. Knowledge is power. And early detection may help make a lifetime of difference.

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