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Early death of Chadwick Boseman teaches importance of regular exams



September 16, 2020
When actor Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer at 43 years old, millions of Americans were shocked. After all, he hadn't spoken publicly about his diagnosis or his fight with cancer.

Joseph DiRocco, M.D., MBA, FACS, is the director of gastrointestinal oncology for the Sandra & Malcolm Berman Cancer Institute at GBMC. He says Boseman's death should remind everyone how important it is to pay attention to overall health.

"It is a fact that colon cancer doesn't care how old you are or what you have done with your life. We only get one body in this life, regardless of color," DiRocco says.

More than 137,000 people are diagnosed with colon cancer in the U.S. every year. The number of people under the age of 50 being diagnosed has been on the rise for some time, a trend that has puzzled experts.

"It doesn't seem to be happening more often in people with a family history," explains Dr. DiRocco. "These diagnoses in younger people are primarily identified on the basis of new symptoms."

Additionally, Black Americans have the highest rates of colorectal cancer and death across all racial groups in the United States, nearly twice as high as non-Hispanic White Americans. The cause for this is also unclear, Dr. DiRocco says.

"A number of academic centers have been investigating why the disparities in outcomes exist. It could be because of additional comorbidities that are present, limited access to healthcare, or even genetic makeup."

He explains that Boseman, who was diagnosed in his late 30s with stage 3 colon cancer, wouldn't have met any of the current screening guidelines, which advise everyone to begin regular screenings at the age of 45.

Dr. DiRocco reiterates that colorectal cancer has a high survival rate if caught and treated early, which is why it's important to recognize the symptoms and to contact your doctor if anything seems off, even if you're younger than the suggested screening age. Those symptoms include:
  • Rectal bleeding
  • New abdominal pain that's otherwise unexplained
  • Change in bowel habits
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Decreased appetite & fatigue
He adds that Boseman's death is tragic, but it has opened a conversation about the importance of colon cancer screening.

"I've already seen a number of people who've called in to schedule colonoscopies since the news of his death. The benefits of early detection are very clear. This is another opportunity for him to save lives."

Dr. DiRocco says Boseman has left the world with a powerful legacy.

"The roles he played transformed pain into power. It takes effort and courage to have a colonoscopy. You don't have to [have superpowers] to be a superhero. You just have to take care of yourself and do the right thing. Hopefully that's what he'll teach us all."
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