In the heartbreaking passing of actor Chadwick Boseman from colon cancer, a lot of needed attention has been spotlighted on this disease.
More than 150,000 Americans develop colorectal cancer each year, making it the second most common cancer-related cause of death in the United States.
Here are four things you should know about colon cancer:
Some people may have small polyps that develop on the walls of the colon or the rectum. If they are not removed early, it is possible that these small polyps may eventually become cancerous and spread.
A colonoscopy is used as a screening method to detect polyps and to remove them to prevent colon cancer. This is the most treatable way to tackle colon cancer – otherwise, it’s difficult to treat colon cancer in its later stages.
One of the more shocking aspects of Boseman’s death was his age when he passed away. The Black Panther star seemed fit, healthy, and was only 43. Details now point to him battling cancer silently for several years.
Some might think that colon cancer occurs mainly in the elderly population, but there is actually an increase in the number of younger people getting the disease. Since 2000, for people under 50 years old, there’s been a 22 percent increase in the number of colorectal cancer patients and a 13 percent increase in mortality.
“One in seven of the patients in my oncology practice is dealing with colon cancer under the age of 50, when screening traditionally begins,” said Mark A. Lewis, MD, a medical oncologist and director of gastrointestinal oncology at Intermountain Healthcare. “Young people with abdominal pain and gastrointestinal bleeding should see a doctor and be screened as soon as possible.”
Early screening, especially with colonoscopy, holds the promise of saving lives, reminds Dr. Lewis.
As mentioned, many colorectal cancers begin as a small polyp, and if a polyp is found during a colonoscopy, it can be removed to prevent it ever turning into cancer, said Dr. Lewis. Thus, colonoscopy can serve as both a screening and preventive tool.
Colon cancer screening should begin at age 50 for most people, but people with a family history or the genetics of colon cancer may need earlier screenings in life. Patients and doctors will work together to determine when to individualize care and screen earlier due to history and other conditions.
Among people over 65, rates of colorectal cancer, which include tumors in the rectum or the colon, have declined, potentially a result of regular screening.
The bottom line: Early detection is the best chance to prevent cancer death.
Colon cancer is still the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States for men and women combined, and cases have been rising by about 2% annually in recent years in people under 50, according to a recent report by the American Cancer Society.
“Cancer doesn’t care who you are,” said Dr. Lewis. “Cancer used to be considered a disease of aging. It is not. Cancer has no respect for age or gender or race or creed.”
To learn more about colon cancer, screenings and treatments, visit intermountainhealthcare.org/cancer.