After the shock caused by the recent death of celebrated actor Chadwick Boseman from colon cancer, some of his many fans have wondered about the frequency of the disease.
“Of cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer is the second- leading cancer killer in the United States, but it doesn’t have to be,” said Dr. Ricky Goldberg, a gastroenterologist at Greenwood Leflore Hospital.
“Colon cancer, unlike most all other cancers, can be screened for at appropriate age intervals.”
Boseman was primarily known as the titular character from Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther,” and he also portrayed American icons in other movies, including Jackie Robinson in “42,” James Brown in “Get on Up” and Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall.”
The 43-year-old actor had Stage 4 colon cancer but had not spoken publicly about his diagnosis, so his death seemed sudden.
After Boseman’s death, the Rev. Al Sharpton told The Associated Press that Boseman was an important pillar in the Black community and was great at humanizing Black historical trailblazers through his acting.
Boseman’s most famous character, T’Challa from “Black Panther,” helped earn the film more than $1.3 billion globally, and it is the only Marvel film to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
The film particularly resonated among Black children. Many of these young action-movie fans looked up to Boseman’s T’Challa as a hero with ongoing resonance; some children even held mock funerals with their action figures or donned their superhero Halloween costumes to memorialize him.
Boseman’s loss opened up discussions about finding colorectal cancer in its early stages and the fact that the disease is rising in younger patients.
Goldberg said more recent data from various medical research facilities shows that the incidence of more advanced colon cancer is increasing among those under age 50 while it is decreasing in older groups.
He said this is likely because of colonoscopy screenings in those 50 and older.
“Over 80% of those diagnosed with colon cancer under the age of 50 are symptomatic, and the disease is being diagnosed at later stages,” he said.
Symptoms of colon cancer can include abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, unexplained weight loss, unexplained iron deficiency anemia (low blood count) and a change in bowel habits.
Goldberg said the cause of colon cancer in younger people is still a mystery.
“The reasons underlying this trend are unclear. At least some data associates a prolonged sedentary lifestyle with an increased risk of young-onset colon cancer, particularly of the rectum,” he said.
“Most guidelines do not recommend screening for asymptomatic individuals under the age of 50 unless they have a positive family history or a predisposing inherited syndrome,” Goldberg said. “However, in 2018, the American Cancer Society issued a ‘qualified’ recommendation to begin screening persons at average risk — no symptoms and no family history for colon cancer — at age 45 years. This is a practice that I have implemented here at Greenwood Leflore Hospital.”
As for detecting signs of cancer, Goldberg said the method has not varied much: “Colonoscopy is the gold standard for screening and investigation of symptoms possibly related to colon cancer.”
He also said screening colonoscopies are repeated at different intervals based on the findings of the person’s previous colonoscopy.
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