The death of actor Chadwick Boseman was announced yesterday evening with a statement on his official Twitter account. The 43-year old actor had starred in a number of blockbuster movies including the record-breaking Black Panther, which netted three academy awards and was nominated for a further three.
The death of actor Chadwick Boseman was announced yesterday evening with a statement on his official Twitter account. The 43-year old actor had starred in a number of blockbuster movies including the record-breaking Black Panther, which netted three academy awards and was nominated for a further three. The tweet announcing his death stated that he was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016, which later progressed to stage IV and eventually claimed his life.
Boseman did not publicly disclose his diagnosis before his death and fans have reacted with sadness and shock at the announcement, many expressing surprise that someone so young can die of colorectal cancer. But younger people are increasingly developing colorectal cancer, while the rates are falling in older individuals.
“Colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in men and women combined, with more than one-tenth [of cases] affecting patients under the age of 50,” said Dr. Kimmie Ng, Director of the Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “It is urgent that we understand why colorectal cancer is happening in young people so we can develop new prevention and treatment strategies,” added Ng.
A report from the American Cancer Society predicts that this year, 49 new cases of colorectal cancer and 10 deaths per day will occur in people under 50 years old.
“I had every symptom that you could associate with colorectal cancer, I had blood and mucus in my stool, I wasn’t eating, I had no energy,” said Phalon Ervin from Houston, Texas, who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at 28 years old. “I lost an extreme amount of weight in a few months, I was a size 10 in May, and I was a size 1 by September,” Ervin added.
Many of the symptoms associated with colorectal cancer, including changed bowel habits, bloating, weakness and fatigue can also be signs of several other, less severe illnesses making many people delay seeking medical attention and resulting in frequent missed, or late diagnoses even when people do seek medical help.
“I was sick for more than 2 years before going to the emergency room. I was a student in college, with no job and no insurance, I had a young son. I knew something was wrong, I didn’t know what at the time, but I had a lot of fear – I was thinking, what am I going to do when I find out what’s wrong?” said Ervin.
According to the American Cancer Society, the average age at diagnosis of colorectal cancer has been falling since the early 2000’s. But why is this happening?
“That’s a question that everyone is trying to answer and it’s largely a mystery right now,” said Ng. “Young people are much more likely to be diagnosed at later stages than older patients. There are delays in diagnosis due to a lack of awareness, for example younger people might not be so concerned about blood in their stool or other symptoms when they are otherwise healthy,” Ng added.
“I had been sick for so long, it was almost a relief when I knew what was wrong. I was finally getting help, so it was very scary but I had a great team of doctors that explained everything to me and of course your first thought is that its time to fight, that was the mindset I had and I had to have,” said Ervin.
The American Cancer Society recommends that screening for colorectal cancer starts at age 45, unless someone is known to have a genetic predisposition to the disease or family history indicating that they are at great risk of developing the disease.
“There is this narrative of “if you’re not old, you can’t be sick,” said Ervin. “I’ve been dealing with this for 10 years and going to doctors for ten years, and I still have people telling me I was and am too young to have dealt with this,” Ervin added.
Due to the often unpleasant systems associated with the digestive system, colorectal cancer also suffers from stigma, with people often reluctant to discuss or seek medical help for their symptoms.
“There’s definitely stigma, its not pretty, you can’t glam it up. Its an area of the body that people do not want to talk about and the tests to diagnose it aren’t pretty either,” said Ervin.
Researchers aren’t exactly sure yet why colorectal cancer is becoming more common i younger people, but research by Ng and others aims to find out.
“The heartbreaking loss of Chadwick Boseman truly amplifies our mission to effectively treat and cure young-onset colorectal cancer,” said Ng.
So what should young people concerned about symptoms that might indicate colorectal cancer do?
“If you are a young adult ad you’re experiencing these symptoms – don’t let people tell you that you are too young, colorectal cancer is affecting younger and younger people. You fight for what you need, if one doctor doesn’t work, get a second. You have to be vigilant about this – if its caught early, that’s a good thing – the survival rate is much higher,” said Ervin.