The world is in shock at the sudden passing of Marvel actor Chadwick Boseman, aged 45, as a result of stage 4 colon cancer.
The actor, who has been widely applauded for his role in Black Panther, which went on to have a tremendous impact on black culture, had been battling the disease since 2016. Suffice to say, many were surprised at the news of his diagnosis, especially when you consider that he filmed seven films back-to-back following his diagnosis, most of which came with a grueling schedule.
While fans across the world continue to deal with the tragic loss of such a talented actor, especially one that so highly reveled in the black community, it’s also important to use this time to raise awareness about one of the most common cancers in the world.
Colon Cancer and Your Health
Colon cancer is the third most common cause of cancer-related death in the U.S. In fact, about 154 000 new cases are being reported every year. Colon cancer develops as a result of tumor growth in the colon (the large intestine). The colon is responsible for drawing out fluids and waste products from the body, preparing it for elimination.
According to the American Cancer Society, while colon cancer deaths in older adults declined, deaths in people younger than 50 years old increased between 2008 and 2017. Having said that, it should be noted that around 75% of all colon cancer cases can be prevented. What’s more, if detected early, one can go on to have a healthy prognosis. The important thing is to educate yourself about the disease and learn more about what you can do to protect your health.
Stages of colon cancer
Stages are assigned to cancer in order to indicate how far the cancer has spread and the size of any tumors.
In colon cancer, the stages are as follows:
Clinically known as carcinoma in situ, this is the earliest stage of cancer. At this stage, the cancer is easier to treat as it has not grown farther than the inner layer of the colon.
This is when the cancer has grown into the next layer of tissue, and it may have grown into the muscle layer. However, it still has not reached the lymph nodes or any other parts of the body.
At this stage, the cancer has spread to the outer layers of the colon, but it has not reached beyond the colon.
Stage 3 is when the cancer has moved beyond the outer layers of the colon, and it has reached one to three lymph nodes. That said, it has not spread to other parts of the body.
This is the final stage and it is when the cancer spreads beyond the walls of the colon, and it moves towards other distant organs, such as the liver or lungs.
What causes colon cancer?
There are a few risk factors that can increase a person’s chances of developing colorectal cancer. These include:
- A history of polyps – polyps are a small clump of cells that form in the lining of the colon. If not removed, they may grow into malignant colon cancer if not removed.
- A family history of colon cancer – This is especially true if a family member receives a diagnosis before the age of 60 years old.
- Age – Your risk increases after you reach the age of 50 as around 90% of people who receive a diagnosis of colon cancer are over 50 years of age.
- Ethnicity – being of Eastern European Jewish or African descent increases your risk
- Poor dietary habits – consuming a diet high in red meat and processed meat, saturated fats, and alcohol can increase your risk (1).
What are the symptoms of colon cancer?
In the early stages, colon cancer rarely displays any symptoms. However, you may need to make an appointment with your doctor if you begin to experience any of the following symptoms:
- changes in stool shape
- blood in the stool
Chadwick Boseman/Diddy 50th/Vanity Fair
- bleeding from the rectum
- excessive gas
- abdominal cramps
- abdominal pain
Additionally, you may also have some of the following symptoms if you have stage 3 and 4 colon cancer:
- excessive fatigue
- weight loss
- a feeling that your bowels won’t completely empty
How is the cancer diagnosed?
Early diagnosis of colon cancer provides you with the best chance of beating it and the best way to get a diagnosis is to go for a screening test.
During the examination, your doctor will ask you about your medical history, as well as that of your family. They will then perform a physical exam before moving onto a rectal exam to determine the presence of lumps or polyps.
Depending on the results of your screening test, your doctor may go on to perform a colonoscopy. This process involves the use of a long tube with a small camera attached and it allows for your doctor to see inside your colon and rectum to check for anything unusual.
The treatment plan depends on the stage of the cancer, as well as one’s age and overall health status.
There is no single treatment for colon cancer, yet the most common options include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Chadwick Boseman arrives at the MTV Movie and TV Awards at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, California.Jordan Strauss/Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
If your colon cancer is in the earlier stages, then your doctor may treat it by removing cancerous polyps through surgery.
However, if the cancer has spread into the colon walls, then your doctor may need to remove a portion of the colon along with any neighboring lymph nodes. This procedure is known as a colectomy and it’s been shown to have quite a high survival rate (2).
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells and it often takes place after surgery in an effort to destroy any lingering cancerous cells. Unfortunately, chemotherapy comes with side effects that include:
- hair loss
Chadwick Boseman attends the 90th Annual Academy Awards on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood, California. | Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Radiation therapy uses high energy gamma rays to kill cancer cells. With colon cancer, this form of treatment is often reserved for later stages. Like chemotherapy, radiation therapy may come with side effects, and these include:
- mild skin changes
- appetite loss
- weight loss
Chadwick Boseman in a scene from “Black Panther.” Credit: Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios, via Disney, via Associated Press
How can I reduce my risk?
1. Go for regular screening tests
Screening tests help detect polyps so that doctors can remove them before they become cancerous. This is especially important, especially when you remember that colon cancer symptoms only appear once the cancer has progressed into the later stages.
According to an Australian study published in the BMC Cancer Journal, early detection as a result of screening tests can help reduce almost half of colon-cancer-related deaths.
The American College of Physicians recommends screening for people aged 50–75 years. That said, it may be advisable to go for a screening test if you’re still in your 40s.
2. Cut back on red and processed meats
According to a meta-analysis, reported by Harvard Health, high consumption of red meat increases one’s risk of colon cancer by 28%, and high consumption of processed meat increases risk by 20% (3).
If you’re battling with your red meat intake, perhaps you can look to plant-based alternatives such as mushrooms?
Chadwick Boseman attends the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards on March 3, 2018 in Santa Monica, California./Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
A sedentary lifestyle can be hazardous for your health. This is why it’s important to lead an active lifestyle. What’s more, doing so may also help to protect your colon and your health.
In fact, according to a 2019 study, exercising can help to reduce your risk for colon cancer by 16%.
4. Watch your weight
According to the National Cancer Institute, A higher BMI is associated with increased risks of colon and rectal cancers in both men and in women, but the increases are higher in men than in women (4).
In addition to leading an active lifestyle, consuming a diet rich in whole foods, fruits and vegetables can help you to manage your weight, as well as address stubborn belly fat.
5. Quit smoking
Quitting smoking really is the best way you can care for your health, and it’s also the best way to reduce your risk of colon cancer and many other types of cancer, too.
6. Watch your alcohol intake
While a glass of wine a day may boast a few health benefits, it’s important to remember that the abuse of alcohol can be extremely detrimental to your health.
In fact, moderate to heavy alcohol consumption is associated with 1.2- to 1.5-fold increased risks of cancers of the colon and rectum compared with no alcohol consumption (5).
Having said that, it may be advisable to reevluate your alcohol intake and possibly cut back completely.
JANUARY 27: (L-R) Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick Boseman, Danai Gurira, Michael B. Jordan, and Andy Serkis pose in the press room with awards for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture in ‘Black Panther’ during the 25th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 27, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. 480645 (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/Getty Images for Turner)
The bottom line
While you may be concerned about COVID-19, it’s important to remember that cancer is another pandemic that continues to ravage our communities, and we need to be proactive about our approach towards the disease.
As heartbroken as we are over the death of Chadwick Boseman, as well as the late Kelly Preston, it’s vital that we remember to look after ourselves as early detection and treatment are the most effective ways to improve the outlook for a person with any form of cancer.
Li, M., Olver, I., Keefe, D. et al. Pre-diagnostic colonoscopies reduce cancer mortality – results from linked population-based data in South Australia. BMC Cancer 19, 856 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12885-019-6092-4
Oruç, Z., & Kaplan, M. A. (2019). Effect of exercise on colorectal cancer prevention and treatment. World journal of gastrointestinal oncology, 11(5), 348–366. https://doi.org/10.4251/wjgo.v11.i5.348
Parc, Y., Piquard, A., Dozois, R. R., Parc, R., & Tiret, E. (2004). Long-term outcome of familial adenomatous polyposis patients after restorative coloproctectomy. Annals of surgery, 239(3), 378–382. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.sla.0000114216.90947.f6
Siegel, R.L., Miller, K.D., Goding Sauer, A., Fedewa, S.A., Butterly, L.F., Anderson, J.C., Cercek, A., Smith, R.A. and Jemal, A. (2020), Colorectal cancer statistics, 2020. CA A Cancer J Clin, 70: 145-164. doi:10.3322/caac.21601
Thanikachalam, K., & Khan, G. (2019). Colorectal Cancer and Nutrition. Nutrients, 11(1), 164. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11010164