Doctor reveals the heartbreaking truth about Chadwick Boseman's cancer

The heartbreaking death of Chadwick Boseman in August 2020 came as a devastating blow to his fans and former castmates. What also shocked many was the news that while he may have hinted at his health struggles, it turned out that he had been secretly battling cancer for years. In a statement posted to the star's Twitter account, we learned that he had been "diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016," and it had "progressed to stage IV" by the time of his passing.

While it may be hard to imagine the man who played Black Panther dealing with colon cancer, Dr. Lynn M. O'Connor, MD MPH FACS FASCRS, Chief of the Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery at Mercy Medical Center & St. Joseph Hospital, told Nicki Swift that "colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States and the second most common cause of cancer death."

Dr. O'Connor noted that the "American Cancer Society estimates there will be approximately 140,000 new cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed [in 2020] and approximately 50,000 deaths." What you should also know — and what Boseman's death at the age of just 43 years old sadly made many realize — is that "11 percent of colon cancer diagnoses and 18 percent of rectal cancer diagnoses occur in those under 50." In fact, "according to the National Cancer Institute, cases of young-onset colorectal cancer have increased by 51 percent since 1994." 

And that's not all you need to know. 

This group has the highest rate of colorectal cancer deaths

Chadwick Boseman's untimely death may make more people aware of the fact that younger people can also be diagnosed with this potentially fatal disease. Those under 50 should be screened earlier and more often than perhaps most of us had previously assumed. However, there are also other numbers related to colorectal cancer that we all need to know. According to Dr. Lynn M. O'Connor, MD MPH FACS FASCRS, "African-Americans tend to have the highest rate of death and the lowest rate of survival when compared with all other racial groups."

As Chief of the Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery at Mercy Medical Center & St. Joseph Hospital. Dr. O'Connor told Nicki Swift that "colorectal cancer rates were 25% higher and mortality rates were 50% higher in African-Americans versus Caucasians." On top of that, "African-Americans were also more likely to be diagnosed with advanced stages of the disease." Dr. O'Connor explained that these "finding[s have] been attributed to lower screening rates in minorities, later stage of disease at presentation, and diminished access to healthcare."

As horrifying and as heartbreaking as that is, here's what you need to know to try to protect yourself and your loved ones.

This is when to start screening if you're 'average-risk'

"Due to the rising incidence of young-onset colorectal cancer, the American Cancer Society [has] changed its screening guidelines," Dr. Lynn M. O'Connor, MD MPH FACS FASCRS, Chief of the Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery at Mercy Medical Center & St. Joseph Hospital, told Nicki Swift. The "new recommended age for average-risk people to start regular screening with a colonoscopy is 45 instead of 50."

So what does it mean to be average-risk? "People are considered to be at average-risk if they do not have a personal history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps, [or] a family history of colorectal cancer," according to Dr. O'Connor. You also fall into that group if you do not have "a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, or confirmed or suspected hereditary colon cancer syndrome such as (FAP) Familial Adenomatous Polyposis or Lynch Syndrome, which is hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer." Our expert also notes that "any person who may have had radiation to the abdomen or pelvic area to treat a prior cancer is also not considered average-risk."

While it's important to know your risk-factor, and screening for young people is key, it turns out that many cases of colorectal cancer are actually misdiagnosed.

A large number of young colorectal cancer cases are misdiagnosed

Dr. Lynn M. O'Connor, MD MPH FACS FASCRS, Chief of the Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery at Mercy Medical Center & St. Joseph Hospital, points out that "the vast amount of colorectal cancers are still seen in older patients. Young-onset colorectal cancer patients face significant challenges as their symptoms are sometimes misdiagnosed."

In fact, Dr. O'Connor told Nicki Swift that a staggering "82% of young-onset colorectal cancer patients were misdiagnosed," according to data from the Colorectal Cancer Alliance survey. According to the survey, "67% of young-onset colorectal cancer patients had to see at least 2 or more doctors prior to arriving at the proper diagnosis," and due, in part, to that kind of delay, "73% of young-onset colorectal cancer patients [are] presented with advanced disease."

The data also showed that "62% of young-onset colorectal cancer patients did not have a family history of colorectal cancer," meaning that a person's symptoms — and not their relatives' health-related background — should be considered. Fortunately, Dr. O'Connor was willing to tell us what symptoms to watch out for when it comes to colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer symptoms to watch out for

Dr. Lynn M. O'Connor, MD MPH FACS FASCRS, told Nicki Swift that it's "important that signs and symptoms" related to colorectal cancer "are not ignored." What are those symptoms? The Chief of the Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery at Mercy Medical Center & St. Joseph Hospital noted that you'll want to watch out for a "change in bowel habits, abdominal pain, weight loss, blood in the stool, or loss of appetite." However, you should also be that "oftentimes, if signs and symptoms are present the cancer is already advanced."

According to Dr. O'Connor, "the importance of how lifestyle factors play a role in colorectal cancer" is "notable." She said, "Obesity, sedentary lifestyle, lack of exercise, poor fiber diet, as well as smoking and alcohol may play a role." That's why it's "important to increase the fruits and vegetables and fiber in the diet, seek to have at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise daily, limit alcohol intake, and maintain a healthy body weight."

Dr. O'Connor also noted that "colorectal cancer is highly treatable if caught early and preventable with screening," so if you're concerned, be sure to advocate for your own health — and the health of your loved ones — and insist on being screened now and regularly.