The tragic news of the death of actor Chadwick Boseman from colon cancer over the weekend is placing a spotlight on the disease.  Although colorectal cancer rates have dropped among older people, it’s on the rise in young adults and the median age of patients is getting lower. 

This was absolutely shocking and devastating news in my household. Chadwick Boseman was a hero on the big screen and in real life. My kids and I are feeling a tremendous loss. Even though we didn’t know him, we absolutely love his portrayal of King T’Challa and the Black Panther superhero.

Sadly, Boseman’s death at 43 is yet another example of how colon cancer is increasing in younger Americans.  Just a month ago, we were here talking about the passing of Detroit sports radio host Jamie Samuelsen from the same disease.

The Journal of the National Cancer Institute says colon cancer rates have risen each year since the mid-1980’s in people ages 20- to 39-years-old. There’s also been a slight uptick in the number of cases among 40- to 54-year-olds since the mid-1990’s.

The American Cancer Society now recommends colonoscopies at age 45. And if you have an immediate family member diagnosed with colorectal cancer, you should get screened 10 years earlier than the relative’s age when they had it.  So if your mother was diagnosed at 45, you should get screened at age 35.

As you know, this is a topic that’s close to my heart as a Gastroenterologist who performs thousands of colonoscopies.  It takes several years for polyps to develop into cancer, so I can’t stress enough the importance of getting screened on a regular basis.

Do we know what’s behind the increase in colon cancer rates among younger people?

Unfortunately, there are still a lot of questions as to why we’re seeing the rise, and why it’s happening so fast. We do know that younger, healthier people may not get regular checkups and some tend to ignore symptoms because they look at colon cancer as a disease affecting older adults.  So, the cancer is often in an advanced stage when it’s diagnosed. By the way, we’re seeing a decline in colorectal cancer in the older population because of increased screening.

What are the risk factors for colon cancer?

Family history and lifestyle are huge factors in your chances of developing colon cancer.  Obesity, a poor diet, and lack of exercise put you at higher risk. But, it’s never too late to start taking better care of yourself.  Ditch the fast food and processed foods that cause inflammation in the gut, and get more fiber from vegetables and fruits. Stay active, and maintain a healthy weight. And again, Get Screened! Early detection of colorectal cancer makes a huge difference in the outcome.  We have to eradicate this awful disease.