Chadwick Boseman's death puts spotlight on colon cancer among Black men, young people

The "Black Panther" star diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016.

August 31, 2020, 8:59 AM

The death of "Black Panther" star Chadwick Boseman at the age of 43, which shocked Hollywood and his fans around the world, is now serving to spread a light on the disease he died from: colorectal, or colon, cancer.

Boseman's death, announced Friday, is also shining a spotlight on the disproportionate affect colon cancer has on Black men.

Rates of colon cancer are 30% higher in men than in women, of all races. Black people have the highest rates of colon cancer of any racial ethnic group in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Chadwick Boseman arrives to the 91st Academy Awards in Los Angeles, Feb. 24, 2019.
Mario Anzuoni/Reuters, FILE

"Overall, black individuals are about 20% more likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 40% more likely to die," said Rebecca L. Siegel, the American Cancer Society's scientific director of surveillance research. "We're expecting about 50,000 deaths from colorectal cancer this year in the U.S., overall."

The disease, which has also seen a rise among young people, can be deadly if not caught early. It is also one that is not as frequently discussed as other cancers.

"Since the 1990s we've seen this stark and shocking increase in those people under 50 [diagnosed]," said Dr. Robin Mendelsohn, co-director of the Center for Young Onset Colorectal Cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. "They don't seem to have the traditional risk factors. The majority of them do not have a family history of colon cancer."

Across all races, colon cancer is the third most common cause of cancer death in both men and women in the U.S., and ranks second when men and women are combined, according to the ACS.

"I think there is so much information that we need to get out there to really help avoid the situation we saw with Chadwick Boseman," said Dr. Timothy Cannon, a Virginia-based oncologist, who added that while the overall numbers for the disease are going down, the instances of it appearing in men under the age of 50 are actually going up.

Boseman was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in 2016 and battled it for four years, keeping his cancer fight private while he filmed movies ranging from "Black Panther" to "Marshall" and "Da 5 Bloods," according to a statement announcing his death.

Chadwick Boseman poses for a portrait in New York to promote his film, "Black Panther," Feb. 14, 2018.
Victoria Will/Invision/AP, FILE

The actor had not publicly revealed he was battling cancer before his death. He visited with young cancer patients at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital during his very private battle.

Boseman's death at age 43 made him two years younger than 45, the age at which the American Cancer Society recommends men start getting screened for colon cancer. The CDC recommends that screening for colon cancer should begin at age 50.

In addition to risk factors, the American Cancer Society cites Black men having less access to screenings and health care as a reason for their higher rates of colon cancer.

Timothy Mitchell is a Black man who was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in 2006 at age 43, just like Boseman.

He underwent 12 rounds of chemotherapy and today he and his wife dedicate their efforts to breaking down health stigmas for Black men that starts with a simple conversation.

"Early detection is key," Mitchell told "Good Morning America." "Not paying attention to your body and not taking care of your body, it can really end sooner than you wanted it to because tomorrow is not promised."

Though colon cancer may not display any symptoms at all, which is why experts stress the importance of screenings, symptoms may include blood in stool, stomach pain, aches, or cramps that don’t go away and unexplained weight loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"If you are under the age of 50, and you are having symptoms -- and the most common symptom is rectal bleeding -- it is so important that you discuss these symptoms with your doctors so that you can get evaluated," said Mendelsohn. "I think it's important to take away that stigma and to really understand that it's okay to talk about this."