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Actor’s Death Spotlights Colon Cancer Dangers in Young Adults

Cancer Care
Author name: Lee Health

Experts Urge Vigilance, Regular Screenings 

Chadwick Boseman, whose portrayal of the regal King T’Challa in “Black Panther” earned him worldwide acclaim, died Aug. 28 from colon cancer. He was 43. Boseman was diagnosed with the disease at 39, reflecting a rise in the number of colon cancer cases in young adults, especially in African-Americans.

“In the past decade, the rate of new colorectal cancer cases has been increasing in younger people,” says Dr. Khalid Alam, a board-certified gastroenterologist with Lee Physician Group. “A 2013 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that millennials and Generation Xers have twice the incidence rates of colon cancer and four times the rate of rectal cancer than people born around 1950 and earlier. That’s why early screening and prevention are so important.”

Here's what you need to know:

Colorectal cancer, which includes colon and rectal cancer, is the third-most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the U.S., after lung and breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Association.

In 2020, about 105,000 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer—18,000 of whom will be younger than 50.

Lee Physician Group oncologist Bianca Ferrari, M.D., says risk factors for colorectal cancer includes obesity, diabetes, smoking or a family history of cancer. She adds that not all people who develop colorectal cancer have these risk factors, though.

“The majority of people diagnosed with colon and rectal cancers don’t have a family history,” Dr. Ferrari says. “The honest answer is we don’t know the exact cause of colorectal cancer, but we do know certain risk factors are strongly linked to the disease.”

When you should start regular colonoscopy screenings?

“People at average risk should start regular colonoscopy screenings at age 50,” Dr. Alam says, citing the recommendations of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. “A screening colonoscopy can find precancerous polyps, which can be removed before they have a chance to grow larger and become cancerous.”

He notes the American Cancer Society recommends that adults of average risk for colorectal cancer start regular screening at age 45.

Dr. Alam suggests consulting your doctor about getting a colonoscopy at a younger age if you have a family history of cancer colon. He adds the same is true if you’re at a higher risk for colon cancer due to underlying intestinal conditions like Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis.

Dr. Ferrari says the likelihood of surviving colorectal cancer depends on how early it is detected.

“If found early, in many cases colon cancer is curable,” she says. “Fifty percent of people diagnosed with colon cancer at stages I or II have a five-year survival rate of 90 percent. At Stage III, that drops to 75 percent, and, at Stage IV, to 10 to 15 percent.”

Boseman’s cancer was diagnosed at Stage III and progressed. Dr. Ferrari, citing a recent report of the American Cancer Society, says that rates of colorectal cancer are higher among black people.

From 2012 to 2016, the rate of new cases in non-Hispanic Black people was 20 percent higher than the rate among non-Hispanic white people and 50 percent higher than the rate among Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Alaska Natives had the highest rate: 89 per 100,000.

“African-Americans of any age are 40 percent more likely to die from colorectal cancer due to later-stage diagnosis,” Dr. Ferrari adds.

Don’t ignore these symptoms

Doctors say that common symptoms include rectal bleeding, unexplained weight loss or fatigue, cramping in the lower abdomen, and a change in bowel habits. Don’t ignore them. Make an appointment with your doctor for an evaluation.

To learn more about Dr. Khalid Alam and the specialists at the Lee Health gastroenterology department, visit here.

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