The tragic announcement that Chadwick Boseman lost his life to colon cancer last week was alarming on its own. After all, to say that the talented 43-year-old actor was young is an understatement. But a closer look at the circumstances surrounding Boseman’s death reinforces an unfortunate truth: Black people are disproportionately diagnosed with colon cancer in a trend that also has heightened implications for Black men, in particular.
Boseman’s family said in a statement that the megastar filmed multiple movies “during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy,” never once letting on in public that he was suffering from a type of cancer that is many times incorrectly believed to only affect older people. In fact — especially for Black people — colon cancer does not discriminate against age. It is, however, linked to “racism,” according to one prominent cancer researcher.
“African-Americans are 40 percent more likely to die from colorectal cancer,” Rebecca L. Siegel, the American Cancer Society’s scientific director of surveillance research, recently told the New York Times. “It’s because of later-stage diagnosis, it’s because of systemic racism and all that this population has been dealing with for hundreds of years.”
Yes, it’s true that 40.4 percent of Black people account for all new colon cancer diagnoses. But the rate increases significantly when broken down along gender lines. Data shows that at 47.6 percent, nearly half of Black men accounted for all new cases of colon cancer. That is in comparison to 41.2 percent for white men. The same difference is true for Black women, who have a rate of 35.1 percent compared to 31.9 percent for white women.
The two groups’ death rates were similar until the 1980s when colon cancer began to kill Blacks at a higher rate than whites. Researchers say it’s not clear why Black mortality jumped in the 1980s, but it started a gap that continued to widen even after the black rate began to fall again.
While the CDC said its racial data on cancer “should be interpreted with caution,” the numbers show what has been a consistent trend of colon cancer disproportionately affecting Black people.
Some of the well known Black people who have been diagnosed with colon cancer include Herman Cain — who recently died from complications from the coronavirus — comedian Paul Mooney, singer Teddy Pendergrass, podcaster Combat Jack and reality TV star Gregg Leakes.
There may not be a cure, but the CDC recommends people get colorectal cancer screening tests beginning at around the age of 50. However, that recommended age may need to be adjusted, considering Boseman was only 43 when he died after first being diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016.
Cases of rectal cancers have increased faster than cancers found in other parts of the large and small intestines. Younger adults run the risk of being diagnosed with the cancer in the later course of the disease, as screening normally starts around mid-age. Scientists and doctors have noticed cancer rates had been falling because of the developments and use of precautionary screening tests like colonoscopies. But with the disease often associated with aging, this spike in the cancer affecting younger people has left doctors unsure of where to pinpoint the exact cause.
“We are seeing more people in their 30s and 40s who are developing colorectal cancers – often because they’re having symptoms that aren’t thought to be cancers,” Dr. Nilofer Azad, an associate professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins Medicine, recently told USA Today.