Colon Cancer: The Disease that Killed “Black Panther” Star Chadwick Boseman

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The death of “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman at the age of 43, which shocked Hollywood and his fans across the world, is now serving to shine a light on the disease he died from: colon cancer. 

What is Colon Cancer?

Colon cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the large intestine (colon). The colon is the last part of the digestive tract. It is sometimes called colorectal cancer, a term that combines colon cancer and rectal cancer which begins in the rectum.

Colorectal cancer is one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in the world. It is the third most common malignancy and fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide[1]

Typically, colon cancer affects older adults; however, it can happen at any age. It usually starts as small, non-cancerous clumps of cells known as ‘polyps’ that form on the inside of the colon. Over time, some of these polyps can become colon cancers. 

Polyps may be small and cause few, if any, symptoms. Due to this, doctors recommend regular screening tests to help prevent colon cancer by identifying and removing polyps before they turn into cancer. 

If colon cancer develops, many treatments are available to help control it, including radiation therapy, surgery, and drug treatments, such as immunotherapy, targeted therapy, and chemotherapy. 

Lifetime Risk of Colorectal Cancer

The lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 4.4% (1 in 23) for men and 4.1% (1 in 25) for women[2]. A number of other factors can also affect a person’s risk for developing colorectal cancer. 

Colon Cancer Causes

The exact cause of colon cancer is not known. 

In general, colon cancer starts when healthy cells in the colon develop mutations in their DNA. Normally, healthy cells grow and divide in an orderly way to keep your body functioning properly. However, when a cell’s DNA is damaged and becomes cancerous, cells continue to divide even when new cells aren’t required. As the cells accumulate, they form a tumor. 

In time, the cancerous cells can grow to invade and destroy normal tissues nearby. Further, cancerous cells can travel to other parts of the body to form deposits there. 

Colon Cancer Risk Factors

The exact causes of colon cancer is unknown, but it has several potential risk factors:

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  • Polyps. Colon cancer typically develops from precancerous polyps that grow in the large intestine. The most common types of polyps include:
    • Adenomas. Adenomas may resemble the lining of a healthy colon, but it appears different under a microscope. They can become cancerous.
    • Hyperplastic Polyps. Colon cancer rarely develops from hyperplastic polyps as they are normally benign.
  • Some of these polyps may develop into malignant colon cancer if it isn’t removed during the early stages of treatment.
  • Genetics. Uncontrolled cell growth can occur after genetic damage or changes to the DNA. For instance, a person might inherit a genetic predisposition for colon cancer from close relatives, particularly if a family member received a diagnosis before the age of 60. The risk becomes for significant when more than one relative has developed colon cancer.
    Other inherited conditions also increase the risk of colon cancer, including:
    • Peutz–Jeghers Syndrome
    • Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP)
    • Juvenile Polyposis Syndrome
    • MYH Associated Polyposis
    • Attenuated Familial Adenomatous Polyposis
    • Hereditary Nonpolyposis Colorectal Cancer (Lynch syndrome)
  • Age. Age is a significant risk factor for colon cancer. Statistics show that about 91%[3] of people who receive a diagnosis of colon cancer are over 50 years old. However, it is becoming more common in people under 50. 
  • Race. African-Americans have an increased risk of colon cancer than people of other races.
  • High-Fat, Low-Fiber Diet. Colon cancer may be associated with a typical Western diet, which is typically low in fiber and high in calories and fat. However, research in this area has mixed results – some studies found an increased risk of colon cancer in people who eat diets high in processed and red meat. 
  • Underlying Conditions. Some conditions have links to an increased risk of colon cancer, including:
    • Diabetes
    • Inflammatory bowel diseases (such as Chron’s disease or ulcerative colitis)
    • Acromegaly (a growth hormone disorder)

Colon Cancer Symptoms

Many people with colon cancer experience no symptoms during the early stages of the disease. When symptoms do appear, they will likely vary, depending on the size of the cancer and its location in your large intestine.

Symptoms may become more noticeable as the disease progresses.

Some of the symptoms of colon cancer include:

  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Loose, narrow stools
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool
  • Changes in stool consistency
  • Persistent abdominal discomfort, such as pain, cramps, or gas
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Unexplained weight loss 
  • Continual urges to defecate despite passing stools

Many of the symptoms of colon cancer can also be caused by something other than cancer, such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, hemorrhoids, or infection. In many cases, people who have these symptoms don’t have cancer.

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However, if you have any of these symptoms, it is a sign that you should go to your doctor so the cause can be identified and treated if necessary. 

Treatment Options

Colon cancer treatment will depend on the stage and type of the colon cancer. When deciding on the best treatment option, a doctor will also take several factors into consideration, including a person’s age and overall health status. 

Note that there is no single treatment for any type of cancer. The most common options for colon cancer are chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. The aim of treatment is to remove the cancer, prevent it from spreading, and to reduce any uncomfortable symptoms. 

  • Chemotherapy. During chemotherapy, a cancer care team will administer medications that inhibit the cell division process. They achieve this by disrupting DNA or proteins to damage and kill cancer cells. Usually, an oncologist will recommend chemotherapy to treat colon cancer if it spreads. 
  • Radiation Therapy. Radiation therapy destroys cancer cells by focusing high-energy gamma rays on them. A cancer care team may use external radiation therapy, which emits these rays from a machine outside the body. With internal radiation, a doctor will implant radioactive materials near the cancer site in the form of a seed. 
  • Surgery. Surgery to remove part or all of the colon is known as a colectomy. During the procedure, a surgeon will remove part of the colon that contains the cancer, as well as some of the surrounding area. 

Colon Cancer Prevention

There is no definite way to prevent colon cancer. However, some preventive measures include:

  • Regular exercise
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Consuming plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
  • Limiting the intake of red meat and saturated fats

Doctors recommend that people with an average risk of the disease should consider colon cancer screening around age 50. However, for people with an increased risk – such as those with a family history of colon cancer – should consider screening sooner. 

The Bottom Line

Chadwick Boseman died on August 28, 2020 after a long battle with colon cancer. 

The ‘Black Panther’ star’s death has shed some light on the disease – a disease that has claimed millions of lives around the world already. 

If you are currently experiencing any of the symptoms of colon cancer, or if you have any of the risk factors of the disease, please consider getting a colon cancer screening early.

Disclaimer: The information on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All information contained on this web site is for general information purposes only.

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