When they thought T'Challa died, the fictitious people of Wakanda mourned the loss of their great leader. When we lost Chadwick Boseman in real life, the entire world grieved.
The passing of every superhero brings an opportunity for an awakening and a new understanding of things we used to take for granted; Boseman's passing is no different – the very moment we learned the cause of his death, our way of thinking about colon cancer changed forever. We used to think that colon cancer was just for "old people," for example, or that people with cancer are frail. Many of use also assumed that colon cancer affects us all equally, no matter our race. Boseman taught us that none of that is true.
Healthcare professionals typically discuss colon cancer and rectal cancer together, under the umbrella term "colorectal cancer." It is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in the United States, according to a March 2020 report by the American Cancer Society (ACS). Colorectal cancer affects people of all ages, races, ethnicities and both genders, although it does not always affect them equally.
Colorectal cancer rates are increasing among younger people. The ACS report noted that, from 1989 to 2000, the average colorectal cancer patient was 72 years old when they received their diagnosis; by 2016, the average age of diagnosis dropped to 66. During this period, the number of colorectal cancer cases in people under the age of 50 increased by more than 2 percent per year. Death rates are also changing – older patients are experiencing declining mortality rates, while those under the age of 50 are seeing a significant increase in colorectal mortality rates. The Black Panther star was 39 when he learned that he had stage 3 colorectal cancer; he died four years later at 43.
The ACS report, like reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), also finds that racial disparities exist, with African Americans most affected by colorectal cancer. The American Cancer Society report also finds disparities along racial lines, with African Americans most greatly affected. Specifically, the findings suggest that the rates of colorectal are about 20 percent higher in African Americans than in whites, with an almost 40 percent higher rate of death.
About Cancer and its Spread
Cancer is a highly personal disease in that it affects everyone that develops it differently – some people with cancer, like Boseman, may continue working through treatment and keep their diagnoses private. Other celebrities, such as Sharon Osbourne, professional race car driver Scott Lagasse, Jr., and pro golfer Tom Lehman, have been more open about their diagnosis.
The good news is that colon cancer is very treatable – and curable – when found in the early stages, when the cancer is still limited to the intestinal wall. The main characteristic of cancer is the spread of abnormal cells that can affect the way tissues and organs function. Colorectal cancer cells can spread throughout the body to affect tissues and organs far from the colon.
Doctors describe the spread of cancer in stages. In stage I cancer, the cancer cells are limited to one area. In stages II and III, the cancer cells spread to nearby tissues and lymph nodes. Surgery alone is often enough to control cancer in stages I and II; chemotherapy is effective when cancer cells have spread to lymph nodes. By stage IV, the cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body; unfortunately, stage IV cancer is resistant to treatment. Chadwick Boseman learned of his colon cancer in stage III, and he was undergoing treatment even as he filmed Black Panther. Had he discovered his colon cancer in stage I, the outcome would have probably been very different.
Chadwick Boseman seemed like an unlikely candidate for colon cancer – he was young, active and otherwise in good health. In fact, it was impossible to tell that he was ill from his physical appearance and superhuman performance in Black Panther. This serves as an important reminder that colon cancer can affect anyone, even those at the top of their game and in the prime of their lives.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons Boseman taught us is that everyone should muster their own superpowers when it comes to screening for colon cancer. Regular checkups and screening for colorectal cancer is important for adults of all ages, particularly for men and African Americans. In fact, the CDC recommends that most people ages 50 to 75 should undergo screening for colon cancer, but they and the American Society of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy recommend that African Americans begin undergoing colorectal cancer screenings at age 45.
For more information on colon cancer and screening, consult with your doctor or imaging professionals.