SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman’s unexpected death from colon cancer at 43 years old is shedding new light on who can be impacted by the illness.
“What was formerly thought of as an elderly person’s disease, that is no longer true by any stretch,” says Memorial Health colorectal surgeon Dr. Elizabeth McKeown.
The medical expert notes that while it’s still relatively uncommon, cases of colon cancer among people under the age of 50 are on an upward trend.
“About 10% of colon rectal cancers will be diagnosed when people are younger than 50, and about half of all colorectal cancers will be diagnosed before people turn 66,” McKeown said.
The National Cancer Institute reports that colon cancer diagnoses in people under age 50 have gone up by 51 percent since 1994.
The cancer is the third-most common type in the United States and the second-leading cause of cancer death.
It kills over 50,000 people annually, according to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance.
Boseman’s passing on Aug. 28 came as a sudden shock to fans around the world. The actor had privately battled stage 3 — and later, stage 4 — of the disease for four years.
As an African-American man, Boseman fell into the high-risk category for people facing a greater chance of developing colon cancer.
The rate of colon cancer diagnosis is higher among Black people than any other population group in the U.S. Death rates from the disease are also highest among Black people, according to the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.
Being under age 50 also made Boseman part of the group beginning to see higher instances of colon cancer diagnoses.
“There were actually guidelines that were released about a year and a half ago saying that actually, 50 is too late, and we should start screening everybody at age 45,” McKeown said.
“Those guidelines have been in place for a long time for African-American males, but only recently were they widened to include all Americans, and so we are doing routine screening colonoscopies at age 45 and diagnostic colonoscopies for people that are having symptoms whenever those symptoms present,” she said.
McKeown says she’s heard from younger male patients about what Boseman’s battle with the illness meant to them.
“[They’re] really grateful for the awareness, especially in the African-American community, letting people know that this can happen not to dismiss their symptoms,” she said. “I think it gives them some strength in order to face this kind of battle.”
Colon cancer symptoms
Colon cancer symptoms can be subtle and can include thin or ribbon-like bowel movements, bright- or dark red blood in the stool as well as persistent rectal bleeding, McKeown says.
“Other things that can be very nonspecific, such as weight loss, fatigue, malaise,” she noted, adding, “those types of symptoms require a little bit more of a workup before we can automatically attribute it to something that may be in the colon, but it’s still something that warrants investigation.”
Other symptoms that people under 50 might experience with colon cancer include bloating, diarrhea and constipation.
The stages of colon cancer
Stages 1 through 3 of colon cancer are more likely to be treatable, according to McKeown.
“With stage 1 and 2, it’s just surgery, and with stage 3, oftentimes it’s surgery and chemo or radiation,” she said.
McKeown adds that people who have stage 1 or 2 colon cancer have a “pretty high” survival rate.
“We say 80% at five years in general, and those are really broad numbers and they’re not really helpful for a specific patient, but as you can tell, it’s pretty good survival,” she said. “So, 80 patients that come in with colon cancer that have fairly low-grade disease will be coming back for their five-year appointment.”
She says for stages 3 and 4, the survival chances decrease.
“Stage 3 disease means that there’s cancer within the lymph nodes, and unfortunately, whenever there’s cancer within the lymph nodes, we say that the chance of that progressing to cancer within the liver or the lungs is higher, and that’s why those patients receive chemotherapy for the most part,” McKeown said.
In Boseman’s case, the colon cancer eventually developed to stage 4, which has a relative five-year survival rate of about 14%.
“People with stage 3 disease do tend to develop to a stage 4 disease, and they can die from that,” McKeown said.
The doctor says that colon cancer prevention is all about living healthily.
“Low-fat diet, high-fiber diet, a lot of vegetables, a lot of fruits, making sure you’re routinely exercising and healthy — all of those things can be very, very helpful,” McKeown said.
She notes that despite eating and living well, there’s a genetic component to colon cancer.
“Even though if your family didn’t have it and you can still get it, about 10% of colon cancers do run in families,” McKeown said. “If you do have a family history of colon cancer, that should increase the need for screening.”
She says, for example, if a person’s father died from colon cancer at age 35, she’d recommend having a colonoscopy screening around age 25.
“If you had a primary family member that died at the age of, let’s say, 80, from colon cancer, we say you still need to get it early, about 40 years old instead,” McKeown said.
During Boseman’s battle, the film star was able to continue acting in several roles during his treatments.
McKeown says she’s had many patients who were motivated to continue their jobs despite undergoing chemotherapy.
“I think that all of our patients that are undergoing treatment are our heroes in their own way, they’re all fighters,” she said. “It is definitely possible to work during chemotherapy depending on how your body takes it, but once people get into higher stages, it becomes more and more difficult to work.”