"Colon cancer is one of the most preventable and curable cancers,” says Dr. Mark Pochapin, president of the American College of Gastroenterology

By Kara Warner
September 03, 2020 10:59 AM
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While colon cancer is currently the second most common cancer death among men and women in the United States, experts emphasize that death can be prevented with early detection.

"Colon cancer is one of the most curable cancers if we find it early,” says Dr. Mark Pochapin, president of the American College of Gastroenterology and Gastroenterology Division Director at NYU Langone Health. "It's one of the few cancers that we actually can prevent. Colon cancer is not a death sentence."

Pochapin notes that cases are on the rise in younger people and urges anyone experiencing sustained symptoms or those with a family history to speak with a doctor, especially in light of Chadwick Boseman's death on Aug. 28 after a four-year battle with the disease. He was 43.

"Although we are wiping out colon cancer in age 65 and over, younger patients below the age of 50 have been increasing," says Pochapin. "It's still relatively rare for younger people to get colon cancer, but the rates are going up, and we don't know why."

There are also racial disparities in rates of colon cancer. According to a recent article published in the American Cancer Society's journal, Black Americans have a 20 percent higher rate of incidence and a 40 percent higher mortality rate.

For much more on the life and legacy of Chadwick Boseman, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday

Chadwick Boseman
Art Streiber/AUGUST

"There are real disparities," says Pochapin. "Generally, Black people are not getting the evaluations early enough. They may not have access. They may have other comorbidities [the simultaneous presence of two or more chronic conditions]. There may be other factors of diet or lifestyle. We don't know. There's been a lot of effort to really try and understand this, with a focus on more structural racism in our society, how does that play into the disparities in healthcare, and colon cancer is a good model of disparity."

Pochapin also notes that some in the medical community now encourage people to begin colon cancer screenings at age 45, and even earlier if there is any family history.

"We tend to say about 20 to 25 percent of people with colon cancer have some family history," he says. "That doesn't mean a genetic link. That just means that maybe a parent had colon cancer or a sibling, whereas in younger people, 20 percent tend to have an actual genetic defect that we can test for. This is why family history is so important."

Regarding early detection, Pochapin says to be aware of any prolonged symptoms such as rectal bleeding, constipation or abdominal pain.

"I would say that for rectal bleeding, the younger you are, the more quickly you should have it evaluated. Constipation, if there's new abdominal pain, anything that's sustained," he says.

Treatment for colon cancer almost always involves surgery to remove the cancerous growth or polyp.

"The first treatment, depending on if it's not spread [to other organs] is generally surgery, followed by chemotherapy. And if it's rectal cancer, radiation."

Pochapin adds that even though it can be uncomfortable and frightening, knowing more about early detection and colon cancer symptoms "empowers you to be able to protect yourself." To find a specialist, he recommends consulting the American College of Gastroenterology's  "find a gastroenterologist" tool.

"We're constantly making breakthroughs in the world of cancer," he adds. "People should not be afraid now to talk to a doctor about screening. If they're having symptoms, if they have a family history, if there's any concern, talk to their doctors. They need to be screened or evaluated. You can't virtually do a colonoscopy."