South Carolina-born star's death highlights rise of colon cancer in younger adults

September 01, 2020
Screen grab of Chadwick Boseman on Instagram
Chadwick Boseman's family announced his death on Instagram.

In the wake of South Carolina native and movie star Chadwick Boseman’s death, doctors at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center are urging people of all ages to be aware of the symptoms of colon cancer. 

Boseman, 43, was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in 2016. Stage 3 means the cancer had spread past the lining of his colon to the lymph nodes. The star of “Black Panther” and other high-profile movies died four years later, on August 28, 2020.

Colon cancer specialist Virgilio George, M.D., was as surprised as anyone to see the actor born in Anderson died over the weekend. Boseman had kept his illness private and showed no signs of it in public. But George said another aspect of the Black Panther star’s death is less surprising: his age. “The incidence of colon cancer in a younger population has steadily increased through the years.”

Dr. Virgilio George 
Dr. Virgilio George

The American Cancer Society predicts that this year, 12% of colorectal cancer cases in the U.S. — which includes colon cancer and rectal cancer — will be diagnosed in people under the age of 50. That’s about 18,000 people.

“The overall death rate from colon cancer is decreasing thanks to the use of colonoscopies to screen for it in people 45 and up, but younger people aren’t getting screened and aren’t recognizing the symptoms for what they are,” George said.

“They never imagine they have cancer when they have discomfort, changes in bowel movements or blood in the stool. When you are under the age of 45, people think either this is nothing or this is benign. But if you have any symptoms of bleeding, change in bowel movement, indigestion and discomfort, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor, ‘Is there a chance I have colon cancer?’” 

MUSC Hollings Cancer Center has a team of more than a dozen experts in gastrointestinal cancers, which includes colon cancer. The youngest colon cancer patient George has seen was just 18 years old.

“We do diagnose people at early ages with colon cancer, and these are not necessarily people with family members who have had colon cancer. These are young, productive males and females who are being diagnosed with colon cancer and sometimes advanced colon and rectal cancer.”

African Americans, like Boseman, have the highest rate of colorectal cancer and are more likely to die from it than any other racial group in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Scientists are studying the reasons for that.

Other risk factors that can’t be changed include:

  • Age. Colon cancer becomes more common after 50.
  • A history of polyps, which are clumps of cells in the colon that can turn into cancer.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease.
  • A family history of colorectal cancer or precancerous polyps.
  • An inherited condition such as Lynch syndrome that can lead to cancer.

But there are plenty of risk factors people can change, George said, including:

  • A low fiber diet.
  • A sedentary lifestyle.
  • Being overweight.
  • Smoking.
  • Drinking too much alcohol.

George said Boseman, who played a superhero in “Black Panther,” could inspire others in real life to take the threat of colon cancer seriously. “He could be a hero for people with colon cancer, too.”

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