The death of Chadwick Boseman at age 43 from colon cancer has put a spotlight on a disease that’s on the rise among young people.
The “Black Panther” star died after a 4-year battle with colon cancer.
According to the
The actor was initially diagnosed with stage 3 cancer, meaning it had already grown through his intestinal wall. It eventually progressed to stage 4, indicating the malignancy had spread beyond his digestive tract.
“Twenty to twenty-five percent of newly diagnosed colon cancers are already spread to other organs at presentation, and at that point chemotherapy is the primary therapy, although surgery plays a role as well,” Dr. Elena Ivanina, gastroenterologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City, told Healthline.
According to a recent report by the American Cancer Society (ACS), colon and rectal (colorectal) cancer rates are rising among younger groups of people.
Researchers found that the average age patients were diagnosed with colorectal cancer was 72 from 1989 until the early 2000s but dropped to 66 by 2016.
However, the trends reversed for people 50 to 64 years old, whose colorectal cancer rate increased by 1 percent, while those under 50 saw rates increase by over 2 percent per year.
Death rates also vary by age group, with older patients experiencing declining mortality while those younger than 50 years see a significant increase.
“We believe that the rise in obesity is linked to the rise in colorectal cancer in those younger than 50,” said Dr. David Rivadeneira, director of the Northwell Health Cancer Institute in Long Island, New York.
The report also finds racial disparities, with African Americans most affected.
Findings suggest that colorectal cancer rates are roughly 20 percent higher in African Americans than non-Hispanic whites with an almost 40 percent higher rate of death.
“Colon cancer is extremely curable when caught in early stages, stages 1 and 2, when the cancer is limited to the intestinal wall,” said Rivadeneira.
He explained that there’s a very high chance of cure with surgery.
“Surgery alone for early stage colon cancer provides an 80 to 95 percent cure rate,” said Rivadeneira.
He explained that surgery usually involves removing the segment of the colon that has the cancer along with the nearby lymph nodes.
He emphasized that most surgeries are performed using minimally invasive approaches like laparoscopic (“key-hole”) surgery or robotical surgery. These methods mean smaller incisions, less pain, and a quicker recovery.
“Those cancers that have spread to the local lymph nodes are classified as stage 3 and often will require chemotherapy in addition to surgery and will have a survival of 40 to 65 percent,” said Rivadeneira.
He adds that patients whose cancer spreads to other major organs are stage 4 and even with chemotherapy have a 35 percent or lower 5-year survival rate.
Rivadeneira said the people at greatest risk for colorectal cancer include:
“It appears that smokers and those with obesity are also at increased risk of developing colon and rectal cancer,” says Rivadeneira. But he adds, “Diets high in fiber and low in red meat consumption are associated with less colon cancer.”
He explained that it’s important to exercise, stay active, and maintain a normal weight, “as obesity has been linked to an increase in colon cancer.”
Ivanina cautioned that while colorectal cancer can be prevented by screening (colonoscopy), it’s a lethal, progressive cancer if not caught early.
“Localized colorectal cancer has a good prognosis when caught early, with a 90.2 percent 5-year survival,” she said.
“Unfortunately, Chadwick Boseman was diagnosed with stage 3 with spread to the lymph nodes and a 5-year survival of 71.8 percent.”
She explains that once his cancer progressed to stage 4, spreading to other organs, his 5-year survival was reduced to about 14 percent. Even when African Americans are diagnosed with early stage disease, “they have significantly worse survival rates.”
“If he was diagnosed at stage 1, he certainly may have had a more promising chance at treatment,” she said.
“Unfortunately, African Americans are more likely to develop colorectal cancer at a younger age and to be at a more advanced stage when diagnosed, according to the National Cancer Institute.”
According to Ivanina, African Americans should start screening for colorectal cancer early, at age 45 instead of 50.
“If you develop any new symptoms, such as blood in the stool or a change in bowel movements, talk to a gastroenterologist,” she said.
But she added that armed with the right knowledge and screening techniques, “colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable cancers there are!”
The recent death of Chadwick Boseman highlights how colorectal cancer rates are increasing among people under 50 and how the disease especially affects the African American community.
Experts say that if caught early enough, this type of cancer has an over 90 percent 5-year survival rate. However, if caught after spreading to other organs, that rate drops to about 14 percent.
They also say that African Americans should begin colon cancer screening earlier than other groups, at age 45 rather than 50.