Fans of the movie "Black Panther" and other Chadwick Boseman blockbusters were shocked when it was announced last month that the 43-year-old actor had passed away from colon cancer. While the world is still coming to terms Boseman’s loss at such a young age, it has led to an increased awareness about the disease, discussions about risk factors, and provided renewed educational opportunities about how this cancer can be prevented.
"Colon cancer is unique in that it’s preventable," says Courtney Scaife, MD, gastrointestinal surgeon and chief of surgical oncology in the Division of General Surgery at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at University of Utah Health.
"It’s an unusual cancer because we know that polyps are the precursor of colon cancer, and a colonoscopy, or a screening for colon cancer, can catch them. So if we take the polyps out before it changes to cancer, we prevent it."
The base screening guidelines for colon cancer recommend a colonoscopy at age 50. Depending on the results, the test should be repeated every five to 10 years. Some symptoms of colon cancer include:
- Blood in the stool
- Feeling a blockage, feeling bloated, or having cramping pains
- Weight loss
- People with a family history or genetic syndrome have the highest risk of colon cancer.
- These are other risk factors:
- Lack of exercise
- A diet low in fiber, vegetables, and fruit and high in fat or red meat
- Being 50 years old or older.
"The symptoms of colon cancer are pretty vague, which is why we say screening is so much better," Scaife says. "We are also seeing a slightly higher number of younger people in the United States getting colon cancer. If you have any questions [about symptoms you’re having], talk to your doctor."
Jeff Winegar, a patient at HCI, was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 25 after noticing he was using the bathroom more than his pregnant wife. Winegar delayed a doctor’s visit until their baby was born; it was his wife who finally convinced him to go. When he did, his doctors recommended a colonoscopy.
"Getting a colonoscopy turned out to be a huge blessing for me because that’s when they caught the tumor," Winegar says.
HCI’s gastrointestinal team works together in order to benefit patients. They collaborate on research and have the same clinic hours, which allows them to help each other.
"It was a no brainer to go to Huntsman Cancer Institute because we have this world-renowned institution in Salt Lake that others don’t have," explains Winegar. "My care team made sure that my needs were met. They did everything possible to get me better."
Winegar went through radiation, surgeries, and chemotherapy until there was no sign of cancer. His HCI care team then started a plan to check in every six months for the next five years—the minimum time before a patient can be declared cancer-free.
About a year into the monitoring, test results showed cancer in his liver. Winegar embarked on his second round of comprehensive treatment. He went through more surgeries and chemotherapy, all while going to graduate school and working. During his last surgery, his team was happy to discover no trace of cancer.
"To get out of that surgery and find out everything was good was incredible," Winegar says.
Winegar is still going through check-ins and hopes to officially be cancer free soon. He still gets colonoscopies regularly. He would happily take the discomfort of a colonoscopy, he says, for more time with his family.