What to Know About Colon Cancer

In the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s death from colon cancer at age 43, many people have questions about the disease, especially about the risk of colon cancer in younger people. Here’s what is known and what experts recommend.

43岁的查德维克·博斯曼(Chadwick Boseman)因结肠癌病逝后,许多人对这种疾病产生了疑问,尤其是年轻人患结肠癌的风险。以下是已知情况和专家建议。

Doesn’t colon cancer mostly affect older people?


Although the majority of cases are found in older people, there has been an increase in cases in younger people in recent years.


Among people over 65, rates of colorectal cancer, which includes tumors in the rectum or the colon, have actually been declining, probably because of more regular screening. Nonetheless, it is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States for men and women combined, and cases have been rising by about 2 percent annually in recent years in people under 50, according to a recent report by the American Cancer Society.

在65岁以上人群中,结肠直肠癌(包括直肠或结肠肿瘤)的发病率其实一直在下降,这可能是因为有了更多的定期筛查。不过,根据美国癌症协会(American Cancer Society)最近的一份报告,它是美国所有男性和女性的第二大癌症死因,近年来,50岁以下人群的病例以每年约2%的速度增长。

Experts aren’t sure exactly why. For some patients, obesity, diabetes, smoking or a family history of cancer may play a role, but not all people who develop colorectal cancer have these risk factors.


“The bottom line is we just don’t know,” said Dr. Robin B. Mendelsohn, co-director of the Center for Young Onset Colorectal Cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which was opened in 2018 to treat younger patients and study the reasons for their diagnoses. She and her colleagues are exploring whether diet, medications like antibiotics, and the microbiome — which have all changed significantly for generations born in the 1960s and later — might be contributing to the cancer in younger people.

“总的来说我们确实不知道,”斯隆·凯特琳癌症中心(Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center)青年结直肠癌中心的联合主任罗宾·B·门德尔松博士(Robin B. Mendelsohn)说,这一机构于2018年开业,专门治疗较年轻的患者,并研究他们的确诊原因。她和同事们正在探究饮食、抗生素等药物以及微生物群——对上世纪60年代以后出生的世代来说,这些因素都发生了显著变化——是否是年轻人患病的可能因素。

When is screening recommended?


Everybody should begin getting screenings at age 45, the American Cancer Society and other expert groups recommend. But people with a family history of colon cancer should start getting tested at age 40, or at 10 years younger than the age at which their family member was diagnosed, whichever is sooner.


Dr. Mendelsohn recommends early screening also for people with a history of inflammatory bowel disease, like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, and for people who have previously received radiation in their abdomen or pelvis.


Screenings can be done with various tests on stool samples or with imaging-based tests like colonoscopies. The risks from these tests are relatively small. The prep for a colonoscopy, drinking liquid to cleanse the colon the day before, can be uncomfortable. But the advantage of a colonoscopy is that if it reveals polyps that might be precancerous, they can be removed during the test, said Dr. Mohamed E. Salem, an associate professor of medicine at the Levine Cancer Institute at Atrium Health in Charlotte, N.C.

筛查可以通过对粪便样本进行各种测试,也可以通过结肠镜检查等基于成像的测试。这些测试的风险相对较小。结肠镜检查的准备工作包括,在前一天饮用清洁结肠的液体,可能会让人不适。但结肠镜检查的优势在于,如果发现有可能是癌前病变的息肉,就可以在检查期间将其切除,北卡罗来纳州夏洛特市心房健康(Atrium Health)莱文癌症研究所(Levine Cancer Institute)的医学副教授穆罕默德·E·萨利姆博士(Dr. Mohamed E. Salem)说。

“It makes a huge difference when you detect cancer early versus late,” he said.


“The five-year survival rate for young people for early-stage disease is 94 percent,” said Rebecca L. Siegel, the scientific director of surveillance research at the American Cancer Society. For people with late stages of the disease, the survival rate can be as low as 20 percent, she said. Early diagnosis, Ms. Siegel said, is “the difference between life and death.”

“青年早期结肠癌的五年生存率是94%,”美国癌症协会的监测研究科学主任丽贝卡·L·西格尔(Rebecca L. Siegel)说。该病晚期患者的存活率可能低至20%,她说。西格尔表示,早期诊断意味着“生与死的差别”。

Mr. Boseman learned in 2016 that he had Stage 3 colon cancer, according to an Instagram post announcing his death. Dr. Mendelsohn said that patients with Stage 3 “have an approximate 60 percent to 80 percent chance of cure,” depending on a number of factors, including whether the cancer is responsive to chemotherapy.


Are there racial disparities in the risk of colon cancer?


Yes. According to the recent American Cancer Society report, rates of colorectal cancer are higher among Black people. From 2012 to 2016, the rate of new cases in non-Hispanic Black people was 45.7 per 100,000, about 20 percent higher than the rate among non-Hispanic white people and 50 percent higher than the rate among Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Alaska Natives had the highest rate: 89 per 100,000.


Ms. Siegel also said that at any age, “African-Americans are 40 percent more likely to die from colorectal cancer. It’s because of later-stage diagnosis, it’s because of systemic racism and all that this population has been dealing with for hundreds of years.”


What symptoms should prompt someone to see a doctor for possible colon cancer?


Common symptoms include bloody stool or bleeding from the rectum, doctors say. Other symptoms can include constipation or diarrhea, a change in bowel habits, dark sticky feces, feeling anemic, abdominal pain or cramps, nausea, vomiting or unexplained weight loss.


“If you feel something, you have to say something,” Dr. Salem said. “Don’t put it off because you’re busy or because you’re a young person or because you have too much on your plate.”


Are younger people less likely to receive a diagnosis early, and are they less likely to discuss their disease?


Unfortunately, yes. The average time from symptoms to diagnosis for people under 50 is 271 days, Dr. Siegel said, compared with 29 days for people 50 and older.


“Both doctors and these young folks are not thinking they have cancer,” she said. “Part of that is screening, but it’s not all screening. Young patients have symptoms, sometimes for years. For one thing, they’re much less likely to have health insurance than older people, and so they have less money. And they’re thinking, ‘I’m a 30-year-old, what could be wrong with me — it’s going to go away.’”


Also, she said, “There’s the embarrassment factor. ‘I’m bleeding from the rectum.’”


Dr. Salem said that “there is a lot of shame somehow. Nobody likes to have bleeding, especially from their butt. Especially young people; they don’t like to discuss this or disclose this information. That’s understandable. But it’s our obligation to change that culture. It’s OK to talk about your pain in that area, or your bleeding, or your constipation, or your diarrhea.”


Doctors also need to get better at flagging a younger person’s symptoms as possible colorectal cancer, experts said.


“Anytime patients are 75 years old and have rectal bleeding, we say ‘Make sure and get checked out for colon cancer,’” Dr. Salem said. “When younger people have rectal bleeding, sometimes we say ‘Oh, that’s hemorrhoids or stress from working too much.’ Those symptoms go on for many, many months or years, and now it’s not Stage 1 anymore, it’s Stage 3 or 4.”


Once they receive a diagnosis, doctors said, younger people should not feel ashamed.


“Increasing awareness and reducing stigma, all of this information could be saving lives now,” Dr. Siegel said. “Keeping a secret is not the way to go.”


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