When the Black community lost 43-year-old Chadwick Boseman to colon cancer in 2020, the sting of pain and disbelief was paramount. But what happened to Boseman is disproportionally common in the Black community.
Black folks are about 20% more likely to get the disease and 40% more likely to die from it than any other ethnic group. Regardless of gender, Black men and women experienced the highest rates of newly diagnosed colon and rectum cancer in 2019.
So what can we do to stop the increasing number of Black folks dying of this disease?
“There are some known barriers to access, screening, detection, and treatment that would definitely have an impact on survival,” says James Posey, a professor and director of gastrointestinal programs at Thomas Jefferson University Department of Oncology. “There are in some cases, the comorbidities that a person brings to cancer.”
Colorectal cancer is the third-most common cancer diagnosis in both men and women in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. It’s expected to cause more than 52,000 deaths this year.
Preventative colon cancer screenings, like colonoscopies, can help find and even prevent it. Common symptoms include rectal bleeding, cramping or pain in your belly, changes in bowel habits, and feeling weak.
It’s important for folks to know the signs because the risk for Black folks is so stark.
Posey says preventative measures fall into two categories. Knowing your family history and looking for symptoms.
“Just simply looking at the stool, as one is eliminating,” he says. “To make sure it has the right color, the right caliber, and that the bowel habits are regular.”
What can noticing abnormal symptoms and getting a diagnosis look like? Consider the following first-person perspective of Derrick Cameron, a 57-year-old Black man diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016:
Bleeding in My Stool
I was extremely surprised by the diagnosis. A year or so prior to the diagnosis, I actually had some bleeding in my stool. I had a colonoscopy, and they removed a polyp. The tip of that polyp was cancerous, which was causing the bleeding.
They took a look at it a year later, and things were good. There were no more polyps growing. About six months after that, bowel movements were really difficult for me. I went back to the doctor because it was really concerning me. Of course, this was after my Web MD search — I thought maybe I just had hemorrhoids.
That’s when doctors discovered a large tumor that was growing outside of the colon. And it was pushing up against the colon, which was causing all of my discomforts. It took a year-and-a-half [to get diagnosed].
I think it took so long because, for me, there was no pain there. The tumor was growing, but I didn’t actually feel anything. When I initially discovered the blood in my stool, I probably should have gone to the doctor much sooner than I did. I think the mentality of some people not going to the doctor immediately when they should, I fell into that boat.
18 Months to Live
When I initially received the diagnosis, life was very difficult for me and my family. By the time I was diagnosed, cancer had metastasized, and it spread to some lymph nodes. I was deemed inoperable, which made me terminal.
At the time, I was told I had 18 months to live, which was extremely hard to hear. But I had some great oncologists — and we started treating cancer. At that point, I made the decision for myself that I was going to live the best I can. I continued to work 40 hours a week, even with the chemotherapy treatments.
Life for me wasn’t terribly hard because I accepted it. And I was just doing the best I could to fight cancer. Dr. Shah, my initial oncologist, tried several chemo cocktails. It would work for a while, and then it wouldn’t work.
Finally, we tried biomarker testing, something I recommend that anyone with a cancer diagnosis try. We discovered my cancer was HER2 positive, and Dr. Shah found a clinical trial for me — not that it was going to cure my cancer, but it may help me.
Through that biomarker testing and this clinical trial, it has some very good responses for myself. It’s been a lot longer than 18 months. It’s kept me alive for quite some time. Now my life consists of receiving chemotherapy every 21 days. In my last CT scan, there were no visible signs of cancer. Life for me now is getting back to where it was prior to the cancer.
Cancer Brought Me Closer to My Family
I’ve had a great support system in my wife Kim. She’s traveled this journey with me, every step of the way. She’s been my rock. Anyone traveling this journey needs that support system. The remainder of my family and friends have also been there for me.
It’s brought me closer to my family. You realize that life can be very short for some of us, and you shouldn’t take it for granted. It gave me a whole new perspective on life in general. I was an easygoing guy, now I really take things in stride and do not take life for granted. There is hope, you just have to live life the best you can. If you’re not feeling well, go to the doctor.