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Chadwick Boseman’s death shed light on colon cancer, but rates remain high among Black people

"The No. 1 thing that came out of his death," one doctor said, was more patients "asking specific questions like, ‘What do I need to look for as symptoms?’"
Chadwick Boseman attends the European premiere of Black Panther in London on Feb. 8, 2018.
Chadwick Boseman attends the European premiere of "Black Panther" in London on Feb. 8, 2018.Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images for Disney file

In the year since the actor Chadwick Boseman’s death from colorectal cancer, Mo Jenkins said he considered — but resisted — getting screened for the deadly disease.

Two weeks ago, however, he watched for the second time the film “Black Panther” — Boseman’s most famous role — and the next day he made a doctor’s appointment.

Jenkins’ physician in Indianapolis had implored him to be tested. “I wanted to know if I was OK, but I didn’t want to take the test,” Jenkins, 48, said. He added that he watched the man who had played a superhero in a movie face colon cancer. “A superhero.He looked great. He looked strong. And then . . . he was gone.”

“I don’t know why watching that movie this time hit me like it did. But I made an appointment, and did the screening.”

Jenkins, a human resources manager, said he exhaled when his results came back indicating no signs of cancer. “Totally relieved,” he said. “But the point was to make sure I was OK before it was too late. Chadwick Boseman inspired me to do that.”

When Boseman died at 43, Black doctors had hoped it would be an inflection point for Black people in general, Black men in particular, to get screened for colon cancer, a treatable disease if discovered in time.

Doctors who spoke to NBC News said more Black men in their practices are being screened for colorectal cancer since Boseman’s death. Still, there is no quantifiable data to discern whether Black men, overall, have increased screenings.

Still, the reality remains: Black people are 20 percent more likely to get colon cancer than any other race, according to the American Cancer Society, and are 40 percent more likely to die from it. Further, they are more likely to have an advanced stage of colon cancer when diagnosed and have a shorter life span after being diagnosed. 

Additionally, according to a report from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, factors contributing to the disproportionately high rate of colorectal cancer in Black people include lower rates of screening, structural racism, social determinants of health and difficulty obtaining available treatment, among others.

Boseman’s death highlighted that public health organizations recommend colon cancer screening at 45 years old instead of 50.

“Most people, when they think of colon cancer, think of someone being old,” said Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, an internal medicine physician in Alabama. “You don’t think of someone who was in their early 40s, like Chadwick, definitely not someone who looked as healthy as he did. So, I think it really helps people to wake up to just how easy it is for this particular cancer to be active and do harm in your body without you being aware of it.

Image: Dr. Timothy Quinn
Dr. Timothy Quinn.Gary Davis

“And I think that was probably the No. 1 thing that came out of his death because a lot of patients did start asking specific questions like, ‘What do I need to look for as symptoms?’ So, awareness definitely increased.”

However, the doctors said two prevailing factors have offset the influence of Boseman’s death: the coronavirus pandemic and the perceived invasive nature of colon cancer testing.

Stay-at-home mandates as Covid raged in 2020 shut down in-person doctor appointments.

“I’ve seen a lot more people being screened since Covid restrictions were lifted,” said Dr. Timothy Quinn, a primary care physician in the Jackson, Mississippi, area. “But the pandemic changed a lot last year. A lot of people were skipping their doctor’s appointments, understandably afraid to come to the doctor because of factors like being around people in the waiting room. So that slowed down screenings, which never helps.”

Even if screenings increased among Black people, “we’re still on the low end of the spectrum in totality,” Dalton-Smith said. “Chadwick Boseman had this national profile. He was the Black Panther. He obviously raised awareness, but a lot of times in our community, we don’t want to get the screening because we start thinking about the whole invasiveness part of it when it doesn’t even have to be that.”

Image: Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith
Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith.

Men fret over the idea of having a colonoscopy — a procedure in which a long, flexible tube with a tiny video camera called a colonoscope is inserted into the rectum. The camera allows the doctor to view the inside of the entire colon.

Quinn said he recently had a patient whom he convinced to get screened, but only because he offered him a noninvasive option.

“His first concern was the colonoscopy,” he said. “He was trying to get out of there. I told him, ‘Hold up. You’re good. My hands are in my pockets.’ There’s another way.” 

Quinn went on to explain that there is an FDA-approved at-home colon cancer test kit, which uses a stool sample from the patient. The physician would order the kit sent to the patient’s home. The patient would provide the sample, package it and send the kit to a laboratory for testing.

“And he’d receive the results in days,” Quinn said. “I told him this could be a life-changer. And he agreed to it. That was a big deal.”

Nolan-Smith agreed. “The No. 1 thing is, Chadwick Boseman was a kind of pushing point for some people being aware of the severity of the disease,” she said. “The idea now is to use that awareness and let people know that the key deterrent to getting tested — it being invasive — is not something to fear. There are other things you can do that are minimally invasive, like Cologuard, that still are very effective in early prevention.

“We’ve got to a place in medicine, where many of the cancers that used to kill people, can now be treated — if we catch it early enough,” she added. “The problem is, we still have double the death rate in the African American community. And a big part of that is because of not getting the preventative testing. That’s what, a year after losing Chadwick Boseman, we have to get out of it.”

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