Last week, America lost one of its gifted actors Chadwick Boseman, star of the groundbreaking superhero flick Black Panther and other movies. Boseman, 43, died from colon cancer—a disease he had been struggling with for the past four years, according to reports.
Once a type of cancer that was more evident in men and women 50 and older, in recent years is being found frequently in younger people. Colon cancer has one of the highest mortality rates in the United States.
Several gastroenterologists, specialists who focus on the digestive system, describe colon cancer as one of the most “insidious cancers,” because the symptoms are not usually revealed until the disease has advanced. This, they say, is the reason why preventative medical examinations should be done every three or four years depending on an individual’s age. These exams determine whether there are polyps, lumps, or other abnormalities in the colon, especially the lower colon or intestines, and rectum.
The cancer is called colon cancer if it is discovered in the colon and rectal cancer if discovered in the rectum.
It is not unusual for abnormal cells to grow in the colon and rectum. These cells can merge to form polyps, which can develop into cancer.
According to Miami gastroenterologist Dr. Michael Vasquez, getting a colonoscopy is the best way to find out if there are polyps in the colon or rectum.
“During the colonoscopy, the patient is sedated, and a long flexible tube is inserted into the colon through the rectum. The doctor conducting the test is able to get a visual image of the colon from a monitor to which the tube is linked. If polyps are seen, usually the polyps are removed during the procedure. Later a biopsy is taken from the polyps to determine if they are cancerous,” Vazquez says.
He added that despite doctors emphasizing the importance of colon cancer screenings, “you would be surprised” how many people are reluctant to do so. “Most of them cannot tolerate the pre-screening procedure, which involves taking medication to totally cleanse the colon and rectum the night before the screening is done. It is essential that the colon is totally clean for the screening to be effective. Then, there are also people who fear being diagnosed with cancerous polyps if they are screened. But it is imperative that people get a colonoscopy regularly, say every three or four years, especially between ages 45 and 75.”
According to a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three adults aged 50 to 75 had not been tested for colorectal cancer in the U.S.
The other test is called a sigmoidoscopy, which is similar to a colonoscopy. A lighted scope is inserted into the lower portion of the intestine. During this test, polyps can also be reduced if identified.
A stool test can also be used to determine if blood is present in a person’s stool—a significant sign of possible colon disease.
Cause of Colorectal Cancer
While doctors have no specific cause for colon cancer, research shows that people who eat less red meat, pork, processed foods, and consume more fresh fruits and vegetables as well as avoid alcohol and smoking, are less inclined to develop colon cancer.
Symptoms of Colon Cancer
The common symptoms of colon cancer include:
- pain in the belly, especially the lower belly
- dark or black stool, which is indicative of blood in the stool
- constant fatigue
- and changes in bowel habits including:
- more frequent bowel actions
- alternate bouts of constipation and diarrhea
- a sensation that the bowel isn’t empty
- change in the size of the stool, particularly in passing narrow pencil-sized stool
Other Prevention Suggestions
The American Cancer Society recommends that one can take steps to prevent colon cancer by:
- Avoiding being overweight—people with big bellies or fat around the waist are more at risk
- Copiously manage diet, including a diet of morewhole grains, fruits, vegetables, poultry, and fish, and less red meat, refined grains, and sweets
- Consume no more than two alcoholic drinks daily
- Frequent physical activity, including visits to a gym or simply walking between four and 10 thousand steps daily. Frequent physical activity helps to clear the colon daily and keep it healthy.
- Quit smoking—a known health hazard, to eliminate the risk of colon cancer
People with a history of colon cancer in their family, especially immediate family members—father, mother, grandparents, aunt, uncles, siblings—should be particularly proactive to be screened for colon cancer.