Troubling Trend: Young Men Are Dying From Colorectal Cancer

Actor Chadwick Boseman died last year at the age of 43 from stage 4 colon cancer. The “Black Panther” star represents a troubling trend of men younger than 49 who are at an unusually high risk of dying from colorectal cancer. According to a study published in the American Journal of Cancer Research, despite the overall reduction in the cases of colorectal cancer in America, there are geographical “hot spots” where cases of this potentially deadly cancer are soaring.

June is National Men’s Health Month and it is critical that American men pay attention to their risk factors for developing cancer. This is especially important for men who live in, or grew up in, the areas identified as hot spots for colorectal cancer.   

According to STAT,  Black men in these areas are more likely to be diagnosed with advanced stages of colorectal cancer and are also more likely to die from it than white men. According to the study, there are 232 counties in the U.S. where men ages 20 to 49 are at increased risk of developing colorectal cancer, including Anderson County, South Carolina, where Boseman grew up.

Since the 1990’s, the rate of colorectal cancer has declined for people age 50 and older but has more than doubled among younger American adults. A recent study predicted that colorectal cancer will be the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in people ages 20 to 49 by the year 2030, says STAT.

Experts are baffled.

“We don’t know where this is coming from,” said Dr. Charles Rogers, assistant professor in the Public Health Division of the University of Utah School of Medicine whose specialty is addressing the racial inequalities in healthcare and who was the lead author in the hot spots study. “Just like we don’t really know why Black people have the highest chance of getting and dying from it,” he added.

Rogers and his colleagues have identified some causal factors that are shared in these hot spots, which are almost all in the South. Smoking, obesity, lack of access to healthful foods, and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, could contribute to early onset colorectal cancer, according to STAT.

Rogers said that Black men are less likely to have screening colonoscopies. “There’s a whole lot of factors that contribute,” he said. “Like masculinity, poor patient-provider communication, embarrassment, fear, fatalism.” Rogers added that often just talking about intimate things like bleeding from the rectum and bowel habits can be difficult.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) last month issued new screening guidelines for colorectal cancer due to the rising incidence of the disease in younger adults. The new guidelines now recommend that people deemed at average risk should have routine screening beginning at age 45, instead of age 50.

Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death for both men and women, with nearly 53,000 people in the United States projected to die of the disease this year. Colorectal cancer is most frequently diagnosed in people between the ages of 65 and 74, but nearly 11% of new cases occur in people younger than 50, according to USPSTF.

“Hopefully, this will get more attention so that people know that colon cancer is no longer an old person’s disease,” said Rogers, according to STAT. “It’s starting to get traction. But unfortunately, it only really gets traction when somebody dies.”

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