The past couple of years have brought sad news of several celebrities who have lost their lives to colorectal cancer. The stories serve as a sobering reminder of the silent and aggressive nature of the disease.
The deaths include TikTok star Randy Gonzalez, 35, (part of the “Enky Boys”), in January 2023; actress Kirstie Alley, 71, in December 2022; and soccer legend Pelé, 83, in December 2022. And with the recent release of the movie “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”, fans are remembering the original “Black Panther” star, Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer at age 43 in August 2020.
The celebrity deaths underscore the importance of screenings, especially since colorectal cancer has a 90% five-year survival rate if caught early. During March, which is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, providers want the community to note the new approaches to screenings.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends beginning routine colorectal cancer screening at age 45 (up to age 75). Screening may start earlier for this with a family history of the disease. When surgeons find a polyp during a colonoscopy, they often recommend patients return more frequently for additional screenings.
Colonoscopy is considered the gold standard for detection, says Dr. Matthias Weiss, an Oncologist/Hematologist at ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center. However, patients can choose one of three main ways to check for colorectal cancer:
- Fecal occult blood test (FOBT): Checks for blood in the stool, which can be a sign of colorectal cancer.
- Stool DNA test: Looks for DNA markers that indicate the presence of colorectal cancer.
- Colonoscopy: Involves inserting a long, flexible tube into the rectum to visually inspect the colon for any abnormalities or cancer.
For those with a family history of colorectal polyps or cancer, doctors suggest genetic counseling as one way to better understand individual risk for the disease. Cancer in parents or siblings is most concerning, but it’s also important to look at cancer in aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as the age of diagnosis for any relative.
A family history check could help determine the chances of having a family cancer syndrome and whether to move forward with genetic testing. This process can detect an abnormal mutated gene, which puts family members at a high risk. One example is Lynch syndrome — also known as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC).
“We hope these celebrity patient deaths prompt families to have conversations and take action to get checked for their predisposition to cancer,” Dr. Weiss says. “Those findings will guide us as to when it is best to start screening for colon cancer, especially at a younger age.”
Clinical trials have shown promise and may help identify the optimal treatment after colon cancer surgery, Dr. Weiss says. For example, a new technology called circulating tumor DNA can determine whether chemotherapy is necessary. As part of this study, patients undergo a blood test after colorectal cancer surgery.
“This test is highly predictive in determining whether cancer will recur in the patient after surgery,” Dr. Weiss says.
Related ctDNA tests called Multi-Cancer-Early-Detection (MCED) tests are available as well. Researchers are developing clinical trials to evaluate whether this new technology can detect cancer, including colorectal cancer, at an even earlier stage using a simple blood test, Dr. Weiss says.
ThedaCare is involved with clinical trials in the fight against colorectal cancer. Find a review of the ongoing studies here.
Dr. Weiss is hopeful about the research taking place.
“It’s an exciting new era in cancer screening and cancer prevention,” Dr. Weiss says. “We can increasingly personalize screening based on risk — currently on the basis of one’s personal and family history and perhaps in the future based on MCED peripheral blood tests.”
Colorectal cancer is the most preventable cancer, according to the ACS. Still, the United States sees more than 150,000 new cases of colorectal cancer each year. The disease affects all races and ethnicities — with the highest incidence among those 50 or older. It’s the second-deadliest cancer behind lung cancer, mainly because it’s hard to detect in the early stages. People typically have no symptoms until the advanced stages.
Symptoms include rectal bleeding, changes in bowel movements (such as constipation or diarrhea), abdominal pain, fatigue, anemia, unexplained weight loss and decreased appetite.
If you experience any of these symptoms, speak with a health care provider as soon as possible. Early detection and treatment can improve outcomes.
Risk factors for colorectal cancer include a diet high in red meat and processed foods, a sedentary lifestyle, and smoking. To reduce your risk, experts recommend you focus on four key lifestyles:
- Eat a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and high-fiber foods.
- Exercise regularly, which improves physical and emotional well-being and helps prevent unhealthy weight gain.
- Quit smoking and limit alcohol consumption.
- Get a colonoscopy (even if you feel healthy) and other recommended cancer screening procedures.
“By taking steps to reduce risk factors and pursuing recommended cancer screening procedures, you can take control of your health and improve your chances of early detection and successful treatment,” Dr. Weiss says. “We want people to be empowered with information to help prevent colon cancer.”