by Vabren Watts
Marvel Cinematic Universe recently announced that Black Panther 2: Wakanda Forever is slated to be released in Summer 2022.
Though it is exciting to look forward to a follow-up to the 2018 blockbuster hit Black Panther, news about the sequel leads me to think about the impact of colorectal cancer among African Americans and what can be done to help prevent it.
My thoughts stem from the realization that actor Chadwick Boseman will not be reprising his role as the superhero in the sequel. He passed away from colorectal in August 2020 at age 43. Boseman’s death hit home for me as I considered him to be a peer of mine—we were close in age, both African American males and both graduates of historically black colleges and universities.
Although I already knew that African Americans are at elevated risk for colorectal cancer, I did not know the extent of its impact on our community until Boseman’s death. Since then, several efforts have been made to make African Americans more knowledgeable about colorectal cancer, including a report by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) about racial disparities of multiple cancers.
High rates of colorectal cancer in African Americans
Recently, FORCE curated an XRAY update that highlighted data from a report about the burden of colorectal cancer in African Americans. When I wrote this XRAY review, I learned that roughly 20,000 African Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer each year and that we are twice as likely to be diagnosed before age 50 than White Americans. I also discovered that African Americans are more likely to receive an initial diagnosis of colorectal cancer when the disease is more advanced and harder to treat. This makes screening for the disease essential.
Currently, African Americans have the highest death rate from colorectal cancer among all racial/ethnic groups. A portion of this racial disparity is attributed to lower rates of cancer screening in this population. The XRAY update outlines factors that may hinder us from recommended screenings, including:
- lack of awareness about colorectal cancer
- being unaware of the benefits of screening
- fear of a colonoscopy, fear of pain and financial concerns
- lack of insurance and access to care
- not receiving a health care provider’s recommendation for screening
Right-sided colorectal cancer is more common
One thing that I did not know is that African Americans are four times more likely than other racial groups to be diagnosed with proximal (right-sided) colon cancer, which is more aggressive than left-sided cancer. Therefore, it is critically important that we receive the appropriate screening test—a colonoscopy.
To date, colonoscopy is the only screening test that can prevent colorectal cancer throughout the entire length of the colon. Colonoscopy can find and remove polyps before they can become cancer. (Other screening tests may also be able to find and remove polyps, but they have shorter scopes that cannot view or reach the entire colon, and so may fail to detect more aggressive cancers that may develop in the right colon.) In some instances, screenings for colorectal require little to no out-of-pocket cost to patients, thanks to mandates by the federal government and some state governments. It’s important that we learn about these mandates to take advantage of care that is affordable and offers prevention against the disease. (See the section “Insurance coverage of colorectal cancer screening” in the XRAY update).
Other topics discussed in detail in the XRAY update include factors that increase colorectal cancer risks for African Americans such as smoking, being overweight, poor diet, and racial discrimination/biases.
Preventive measures are key
The death of Chadwick Boseman was a wake-up call for many African Americans to become more knowledgeable about the impact of colorectal cancer in our community. It is important that we take advantage of preventive measures—such as screening—to prevent the onset and adverse outcomes of this disease that contributes to 2,300 African American deaths per year.
Vabren Watts, Ph.D., is a science and health journalist and expert in health equity. He has authored more than 300 articles about the latest advancements in medicine for news media outlets, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Psychiatric News and WebMD. Dr. Watts received his Doctor of Philosophy in pharmacology from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN and completed his postdoctoral training in the Division of Cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD.