The recent tragic news of the passing of actor Chadwick Boseman has left many people asking questions about colon cancer. “How could he have had colon cancer at such a young age?” “Wasn’t he in great physical shape?” Indeed, these are the same questions that we oncologists are asking ourselves, particularly in light of the continued rise in rates of colorectal cancer in young adults. Although the number of patients being diagnosed with and dying from colorectal cancer has been declining over the past several years, more cases are being diagnosed in patients under the age of 50.
Especially relevant to the news about Mr. Boseman is the fact that African-Americans are the most likely race/ethnicity to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, particularly at a younger age. Furthermore, when considering patients who are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, dying from colon cancer is significantly more likely in African-Americans compared with white people. We have explanations for some of these differences in mortality but not all of them.
For example, African-Americans are more likely to have a more advanced stage at the time of diagnosis, meaning having cancer spread beyond where it originated – either to nearby lymph nodes or distant organs. This difference accounts for some of the increased likelihood of dying from colorectal cancer. Additionally, factors such as low socioeconomic status and less access to healthcare are associated with an increase in mortality from colorectal cancer.
Some organizations, including the American College of Gastroenterology, recommend screening African-American patients for colorectal cancer at the age of 45, which is five years earlier than most guidelines recommend beginning screening. For patients who have family members who have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, screening should be considered even before the age of 45. Ultimately, the decision of when to begin screening is one that should be made after discussion with the patient’s primary care physician.
Currently, colonoscopy is considered the gold standard for colorectal cancer screening. If a screening colonoscopy is completely normal, it typically does not need to be repeated for another 10 years. Sometimes, pre-cancerous growths can be found in the colon and removed, thereby preventing them from having the opportunity to become invasive colon cancers. In this case, a repeat colonoscopy is likely to be recommended three to five years later.
Other colorectal cancer screening tests exist, including imaging-based tests and scopes that do not examine the entire length of the colon. Stool-based screening tests are available that either test for the presence of blood (a sign that can indicate the presence of cancer) or test for the presence of abnormal genes in the stool that are commonly associated with colon cancer. The advantages of the stool-based test are that they are not invasive like a colonoscopy and do not require a preparation to clean out your bowels. The disadvantages are that they need to be performed either annually or every three years, depending on the test, and if the stool-based test finds abnormalities, then a colonoscopy is recommended to further evaluate what may be wrong.
The bottom line is that despite advances in treatment, colorectal cancer continues to be a concern for adults of all ages, and increasingly for young adults. As we continue to dive into the research as to why African-Americans are at higher risk of being diagnosed with and dying from colorectal cancer, I want to emphasize actions that can be taken to reduce these risks. Exercise, a high-fiber diet, a healthy weight and cutting out bad habits like smoking and excessive alcohol drinking can all lower the risk of colorectal cancer.
Screening is vital, and for those at heightened risk due to family history or being due to race/ethnicity, I highly recommend having a conversation with your primary care physician about when to begin screening for colorectal cancer. I join with the rest of the world in mourning the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman, and if one positive can come out of his passing, I hope it will be the increased awareness of the plight of colorectal cancer in his demographic so that we can begin to fix it.
Learn more about Jonathan Mizrahi, MD.