Since the death of “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman, who died at age 43 after a battle with cancer, local doctors have been ramping up efforts to educate their patients about colon cancer screenings and when it’s time to have the conversation.
The world was stunned to learn about Boseman’s private battle with cancer for four years before his death. Several of his hit movies, including “Black Panther,” were filmed after he was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in 2016.
Boseman’s death is raising awareness of the incidence of colon cancer in those under age 50 as well as the Black community.
Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the nation. A report released in March by the American Cancer Society shows that the incidence of colorectal cancer is increasing in younger people, but declining in older people. The report predicts that this year, 49 new cases and 10 deaths per day will occur in people under 50 years old.
Dr. Gary LeRoy, Dayton family medicine physician and Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Admissions at the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine, said the first step in assessing risk is always knowing your family history.
“I will use this as a teachable moment to say, ’Well, you’re concerned about it, let’s have a discussion as to why you’re concerned. Is there something in your family history about it?’ The test itself is so simple and it’s not going to hurt,” LeRoy said.
The standard age for men and women to begin screening for polyps and colorectal cancer, or colon cancer, is 50, however, family history and other risk factors could be a reason to start testing sooner, said Dr. Todd Kepler, Southwest Ohio Medical Director with Equitas Health.
“The key is to get the screening test before you have symptoms,” Kepler said. “You don’t have any problems, but we recognize things that put you at higher risk. One thing that colon cancer is associated with is aging. If you are 50 years or older, you should be getting regular colon cancer screenings.”
Obesity, smoking, drinking in excess and a sedentary lifestyle are all factors that could increase a persons’ risk of developing colon cancer. Though it’s not completely agreed upon among doctors as to why African-Americans have a higher risk of developing colon cancer, Kepler said, it is a risk factor people in the African American community should be aware of if their family has a history of cancer.
“It has not been sorted out whether or not it’s related to race or barriers to healthcare,” Kepler said, “There certainly are much higher rates of chronic diseases in the African-American community, and a lot of that is related to healthcare and healthy living, issues with food security, poverty, issues with access to healthcare ... there definitely is a higher chance of developing it, it just hasn’t been agreed upon as to why.”
Prevention and screenings
Doctors like Kepler and LeRoy emphasize the importance of screenings and colon cancer education because there is hope in all this because colon cancer is relatively slow to progress, according to LeRoy.
A colonoscopy is the gold standard of colon cancer screenings, however, there are other options patients can discuss with their primary care doctor.
“I’m a family doc, so I’m very passionate about people getting primary care and that’s one of the things that we’re very passionate about here at Equitas Health,” Kepler said. “I think that if you’re seeing a primary care provider, they should be on top of that in walking you through what screening tests are available and helping you choose the right one for you.”
Because Boseman was “the picture of health,” as LeRoy put it, when he starred in “Black Panther,” the world, especially those in medicine, were shocked by his death.
“I was just talking to a patient of mine,” LeRoy said, “and he was saying because of that, (Boseman’s death) he started talking to some of his relatives and he said ’I didn’t realize that all these people, cousins (for example), had been treated for cancers.’ ... I was like ’Wow, yeah if you never ask the question you’re not going to know that. It’s not something you sit around the Thanksgiving table and talk about.’”
Colorectal cancer at a glance
People at increased risk for colorectal cancer may need to start screening at an earlier age and get tested more frequently than other people. You may be at increased risk if:
• You or a close relative have had colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer.
• You have inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis.
• You have certain genetic syndromes, like familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (also known as Lynch syndrome).
Getting screened for colorectal cancer as recommended can reduce your risk for developing this disease. Screening finds precancerous polyps so they can be removed before they turn into cancer. If you are 50 or older, talk to your doctor about getting screened.
Don’t wait for symptoms to be tested for colorectal cancer. Precancerous polyps and early-stage colorectal cancer don’t always cause symptoms. But if there are symptoms, they may include:
• Blood in or on your stool (bowel movement).
• Pains, aches, or cramps in your stomach that do not go away.
• Losing weight and you don’t know why.
Source: Centers for Disease Control