Chadwick Boseman, the actor who portrayed King T’Challa in the Black Panther was 39 when he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. He had two strikes against him in the statistical world of colorectal cancer. He was Black and young. There’s been a two percent increase annually in the incidence of the cancer in people under the age of 50 for the past 10 years. Black people who have a colorectal cancer diagnosis are 17 percent more likely to die than their white peers. It’s also the third leading cause of death in the U.S. among Black men and women. One in 41 Black males will get colorectal cancer in their lifetime.
Boseman dealt with his disease in private. Cancer is never a popular subject to talk about. But colorectal cancer? It’s rarely if ever mentioned in casual conversation. And herein lies a problem, explained Maurisa Potts, director of public relations for the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. “There’s a stigma against talking about it in general and specifically in the black community,” she said. “We need to become more comfortable with having open conversations that can raise awareness of the disease and its symptoms.” The stigma is not limited to just African-Americans but all people of color. A large percentage of Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans have never been screened and experience high percentage of incidence and death rates compared to white Americans.
What are the Symptoms?
Unintended weight loss, cramping, change in bowel habits, blood in your stool, especially dark blood, and nausea are some of the more common symptoms, said Michael Sapienza, CEO, Colorectal Alliance. “Often young people have to see two or three doctors before they get a proper diagnosis. By that time it’s often at a late stage. Because of this we encourage young people under 45 to be their own advocate and be aware of the symptoms.” Sapienza also said that those under 50 need to push for a colonoscopy. Many aren’t aware of Cologuard test that is non-invasive and can be done at home and mailed to your doctor. Because of the alarming statistics, the Alliance is pushing to lower preventive testing age from 50 to 45.
Communication is the Key
Talk to your family. Talk to your friends. Talk to your doctors. Talk to your children. That’s the only way the fear and the stigma associated with the disease will dissipate. Sapienza said people need to push to have their doctor listen to them. “Prevention is much easier than correction,” he said. In addition to developing body awareness and getting screened, Sapienza said there’s much that we have learned about preventive measures that each of us can practice. “Obesity, diabetes, smoking and family history play a role and can have an effect on the development of the cancer. “While there have been no conclusive medical studies, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of the role stress plays in formation of disease,” he said. “Diet and lifestyle–eating processed food, red meat and drinking a lot of alcohol contributes to an increased risk.” Exercise and a diet high in fruits and green, leafy vegetables can help balance the colon, he said.
Even if the screening age covered under insurance is dropped to 45, a preventive colonoscopy may not have covered for 43-year old Boseman, diagnosed at 39 or 29-year-old Trey Mancini (first baseman and outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles) who was diagnosed with stage 3 this year. Mancini credits Major League Baseball for its regular screening process for finding his condition.
Potts said the Alliance is also working with the medical profession on the importance of early screening. “We also want to encourage them to have more of a bedside manner with patients who have concerns about their health and are under 50.” She said that misdiagnosis is more common among younger people than older ones.
The Colorectal Cancer Alliance hopes to use Boseman’s death as a catalyst for change in awareness and attitude about the cancer. While his death put the incidence of colorectal cancer in young black Americans in the spotlight, Sapienza pointed out that only 45 percent of Americans 50-54 years old have been screened for the disease. His mother died of the cancer in her 50s. She had her first screening at age 56. “We have a lot of work to do,” he said.
The Colorectal Cancer Alliance is a national nonprofit committed to ending colorectal cancer. It supports the needs of patients and families, caregivers and survivors. The Alliance raises awareness of preventive screening and strives to fund critical research and end colorectal cancer in our lifetime. For more information visit: www.ccalliance.org.
Pattie Cinelli is a health and fitness professional who has been writing her column for more than 20 years. She focuses on complementary and non-traditional ways to stay healthy and feel good. Please email her with questions or column suggestions at: firstname.lastname@example.org.