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Commentary: Chadwick Boseman’s death from colon cancer is a wake-up call for young people

Chadwick Boseman
Chadwick Boseman’s death from colon cancer raises the alarm that the disease is not only a worry for older adults, an oncologist in Newport Beach writes.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The tragic loss of actor Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer Aug. 28 at age 43, was a shock to all who were unaware of his four-year battle with the disease.

His passing has left a painful void for his family, friends and fellow actors to navigate, but there’s also a vital opportunity here — to raise the alarm that colon cancer is not a disease that only affects older adults.

A report released by the American Cancer Society in March found that half of all new colorectal cancer diagnoses are in people under the age of 66 and that cases among those under 50 have been steadily rising since the 1990s.

The report also projected that in 2020, 12% of colorectal cancer cases will be diagnosed in people under 50 — about 18,000 cases. That is substantial to say the least, considering that colorectal cancer is the third deadliest cancer among men and women in the United States — after lung and prostate in men and lung and breast in women.

Screening can help prevent colon cancer by detecting growths (polyps) that can be removed in the colon and rectum before they turn into cancer. Screenings can also find cancer early, before it has grown or spread, often making it easier to treat and beat. Survival rates greatly increase when colon cancer is caught early.

The American Cancer Society recommends regular screenings start at age 45 for those at average risk. Average risk means no personal history of colorectal cancer, certain types of polyps, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, among other factors. Average risk also means no family history of colorectal cancer.

There are varying levels of risks and different methods of screening available. The important thing is to speak with your primary doctor or healthcare provider about your level of risks and get information about the different methods of screening available.

For those under the age of 45 and at average risk of colon cancer, screenings aren’t necessary just yet. However, staying in tune with your body will be your best defense against colon cancer, which doesn’t always cause immediate symptoms.

For example, if you have unintentionally lost weight; noticed changes in bowel habits such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool; observed blood in the stool; experienced abdominal cramping, weakness or fatigue; or have the feeling like you have to “go” but get no relief from bowel movements — any of which last longer than a few days, don’t wait to contact your doctor to arrange a screening.

Being familiar with your body and how it normally functions and making colon cancer screenings part of your health routine can save your life. Caught in its early stages and localized, the five-year survival rate for colon cancer is 90%, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Staying alert can keep you alive. For your health and peace of mind, waiting is simply not an option.

The writer is a medical oncologist at City of Hope Newport Beach.

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