The untimely death of “Black Panther” actor Chadwick Boseman, 43, after a four-year battle with colon cancer, has escalated new concerns about how the malignant disease disparately harms Black men. The star’s passing also highlights what many medical scientists and oncologists call an alarming rise in the number of younger patients.
For the millions of fans who admired the distinguished actor and purpose-driven humanitarian, Boseman’s death on the 28th of August 2020 is a shock that raises many questions.
“If it happened to Chadwick Boseman—someone who had access to probably the best health care his money could buy—what about the average Joe?” asked a concerned Rhonda M. Smith, the interim executive director at California Black Health Network and a ten-year breast cancer survivor.
Facts About Colon Cancer in the Black Community
Boseman’s death sheds light on the disparities among Black people for colorectal malignancies and mortality rates from all cancers. Statistics from the American Cancer Society revealed that although the number of colorectal cancer diagnoses among Americans 65 or older have been declining in recent years, the figures have been increasing in younger age groups for over three decades. In 2020, the American Cancer Society reported that 12 percent of all colorectal cancer cases will occur in people younger than 50 years old.
In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced 8,729 new cases and 3,802 deaths related to colorectal cancer among Black men in the United States. The CDC found that 40 of the cases and 19 of the deaths were in Arizona.
Compared with other racial or ethnic groups, African Americans have the highest death rate for all malignancies combined, making cancer one of the leading causes of premature death in the Black community.
Furthermore, the Department of Health and Human Services disclosed that the five-year survival rates for most cancers are lower in Black men than in non-Hispanic white men. Such disparities have been prevalent for decades, but Boseman’s untimely demise and the COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the issue. Smith said a good place to begin raising awareness is by improving the health literacy of people belonging to the Black community.
Cancer Care Barriers That Create Racial Disparities
There are multiple barriers preventing African Americans and Black immigrants from seeking the early diagnosis or treatment they need, said Dennis Deapen, the director of the Los Angeles Cancer Surveillance Program, and a professor of clinical preventive medicine at the University of Southern California.
One of the main cancer care barriers is:
- A lack of access to health insurance, with Black individuals being 1.5 times more likely to be uninsured than white individuals from 2010 to 2018, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.
The barriers related to health insurance is related to employment. “When you have higher levels of unemployment, you are going to have lower levels of insurance,” said Deapen.
Another serious cancer care barrier among Blacks is:
- Mistrust is also a significant factor, according to Deapen. Mistrust of medical care can discourage routine screenings and results. Black Americans are a third less likely than white Americans to receive a doctor’s recommendation for colon and rectal (colorectal) cancer screening, reported the researchers of an age-adjusted analysis published in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved in 2013.
“In some non-white communities, there are mistrusts of medical care,” said Deapen. “There are certainly experiences of prejudice that might discourage a person from seeking medical care.”
Last but certainly not least, another major barrier is:
- Racism. There are many forms of racism that both Black and non-Black communities do not notice, but can still impact a Black person’s life and health care experiences. Medical professionals make countless decisions for their patients on an everyday basis, Smith said, and when bias toward lighter-skinned individuals or preconceived ideas about the Black community drive their decision making, an African American’s quality of life and care may be put in danger.
Why and When: The Importance of Screening for Colorectal Cancer
Even though the rates among the general population have declined throughout the years, the rising number of diagnoses in men younger than 50 has sparked conversations on whether Americans should start screening for colorectal cancer at a younger age. Currently, the CDC recommends screening for colorectal cancer beginning at age 50, whereas the American Cancer Society recommends screening at the age of 45.
Boseman was only 43 years old when he lost his four-year battle with colon cancer. The actor was two years younger than the American Cancer Society’s recommended screening age, and if we do the math, it is clear that Boseman received his diagnosis in his late thirties.
Health professionals from the Colorectal Cancer Alliance said patients of all races with a family history of colorectal cancer should begin screening at age 40, or at least 10 years before the age of the youngest case in the immediate family.
Get Tested Before It’s Too Late
Smith and Deapen are only two of the many health professionals and advocates who expressed their shock about the prevalence of colorectal cancer in people younger than 50. Although rare among younger individuals, this life-threatening malignancy shows its aggressive nature when coupled with a lack of screening.
“Those risks are probably greater in certain racial-ethnic populations than others,” Deapen said. “This is certainly a time to be looking very closely at this data, and I think, push the envelope in the direction of being aggressive in screening.”
The surprise death of Chadwick Boseman brings greater awareness to young people and may encourage many members of the Black community to review their family health history.
Michael Sapienza, the CEO of Colorectal Cancer Alliance added that “there is no doubt in my mind, it (Boseman’s death) will make a huge difference.”
Explore the Treatments Available
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