Each week, OMRF President Dr. Stephen Prescott opens “Adam’s Journal” to answer a medical question from OMRF Senior Vice President and General Counsel Adam Cohen.
Like many, I was shocked and saddened by the death of actor Chadwick Boseman, who played the Black Panther and such icons as Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall. I was especially surprised to learn he died of colon cancer.
I thought this was an older person’s disease. But Boseman was 43. Has something about colon cancer changed?
Dr. Prescott Prescribes
Despite its reputation as a disease that strikes in later years (think Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who’s been living with the disease since she was 65), colon cancer affects people of all ages. It is the second-leading killer among cancers in the U.S. And, according to the American Cancer Society, cases have been rising recently about 2% a year for people under 50.
Researchers can’t point to a single variable behind this rise, but obesity, diabetes, smoking and a genetic predisposition may account for a portion of this increase. Still, many develop colon cancer without any of these risk factors.
According to media accounts, Boseman was first diagnosed with an advanced form of the disease (stage 3) in 2016. In colon cancer, as with many cancers, when you detect the disease can matter a great deal. The earlier this happens, the better prospects for treatment and survival.
The primary symptom of colon cancer — bleeding from the rectum — can be embarrassing. Young people especially often can be disinclined to acknowledge it if it’s happening. The problem can be compounded by doctors, who might chalk bleeding up to factors like stress or hemorrhoids in younger patients.
That’s why the ACS recommends beginning regular screening at age 45. (Some guidelines still say 50.) If you have a family history, the ACS counsels earlier, either at 40 or 10 years before your relative was diagnosed, whichever is sooner.
While stool tests are improving, colonoscopy still represents the most effective screening method, especially because it can detect precancerous polyps.
ACS officials say the five-year survival rate for young people with early stage colon cancer is 94%. That figure drops precipitously for those with late stages of the disease. That means vigilance can spell the difference between life and death.