Colon cancer or colorectal cancer is the third most common cause of cancer-related death in the U.S. and a rising cause of death in Black America.
It recently claimed the life of Chadwick Boseman, who starred in the movie “Black Panther.” Boseman died Aug. 28, 2020 after a four-year battle with colon cancer.
His death brought more awareness to the increased risk of colon cancer seen in Black men.
The cancer develops when tumorous growths form in the large intestine, Medical News Today reported.
Here are 10 things to know about rising colon cancer deaths and Black America.
Colorectal cancer affects the Black community disproportionately. The rates are the highest of any racial/ethnic group in the US. African Americans are about 20 percent more likely to get colorectal cancer and about 40 percent more likely to die from it than most other groups, according to the American Cancer Society.
The reasons why Black people are disproportionately affected are complex. “It’s not just genetics,” said Dr. Ezra Burstein, division chief of digestive and liver diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center, in a U.S. News & World Report interview. “There’s a big environmental role (as well).”
Diet, rates of obesity, smoking, and lack of exercise play a major role in making Black people more susceptible to the disease.
African Americans are more likely to develop colorectal cancer at a younger age and be at a more advanced stage when diagnosed. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), even if African-Americans are diagnosed early, they have significantly worse survival rates. And, the NCI says incidence and mortality are highest among African-Americans.
The world was shocked with the death of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman, who succumbed to colon cancer on Aug. 28. Boseman had kept his condition private, according to The Washington Post. He was diagnosed in 2016 with Stage 3 colon cancer, which progressed to Stage 4 before his death.
He was 43 years old.
Boseman’s death highlighted the need for more research of colon cancer in people under 50. Colorectal cancer in people under 50 has been increasing since the 1990s, according to a report by the American Cancer Society. In fact, half of all new diagnoses are in people under age 66, CNN reported.
African Americans are disproportionately affected by cancer in general. “They often experience greater obstacles to cancer prevention, detection, treatment, and survival, including systemic racial disparities that are complex and go beyond the obvious connection to cancer,” Stat reported.
These obstacles range from lower paying jobs and lack of (or less comprehensive) health insurance to affordable foods and unsafe environments.
African Americans are not only disproportionately affected by colon cancer. The types of colorectal cancer tumors that African Americans develop are also different.
“They’re more likely to have tumors that develop in the right side of the colon. These right-sided tumors are associated with poorer outcomes, regardless of race or ethnicity,” according to U.S. News & World Report.
The National Cancer Institute found preliminary evidence that colorectal cancer tumors in African Americans are more likely to have molecular characteristics associated with worse outcomes than those tumors in whites and Hispanics.
Screening is one way to stay on top of colon cancer. Some medical organizations and doctors recommend that African Americans begin screening at age 45 instead of 50 — the general recommended age for people at average risk, according to U.S. News. While not all doctors agree on this course, others believe that since it takes about a decade for a benign polyp in the colon to develop into cancer, catching polyps in African Americans who are in their 40s may help prevent later stage colorectal cancer diagnoses.
Although many people with colon cancer experience no symptoms in the early stages of the disease, there are several signs and symptoms to be aware of. According to the Mayo Clinic, these include:
Doctors admit they aren’t certain what causes most colon cancers.
What they do know is that colon cancer begins when healthy cells in the colon develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell’s DNA contains a set of instructions that tell it what to do.
When a cell’s DNA is damaged and becomes cancerous, cells continue to divide — even when new cells aren’t needed. As the cells accumulate, they form a tumor, according to the Mayo Clinic.
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Factors that may increase the risk of colon cancer include inflammatory intestinal conditions such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. These can increase your risk of colon cancer. Inherited syndromes can increase colon cancer risk since some gene mutations are passed through generations. Other risks include a family history of colon cancer, a high-fat diet and diabetes, among others.