“Cancer affects all of us, whether you’re a daughter, mother, sister, friend, coworker, doctor, [or] patient.” Respected actress Jennifer Aniston stated these words in Glamour Magazine only three years ago. Aniston, along with R&B singer Alicia Keys and Actress Demi Moore, discussed their aspiring project “Five” that involved short films on women’s fight against breast cancer.
Today, from awareness walks to NFL apparel, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is recognized, at a very grandiose level, in America every October. Yet, shouldn’t other cancers receive just as much attention?
Heart disease frequently trends as the leading cause of death for Americans nationally, but cancer has been the leading cause of death for Minnesotans the past six years. The American Cancer Society estimates 230,000 new cases of breast cancer among women in the U.S. this year, but many are unaware that colon cancer trails not far behind with nearly 140,000 expected new cases.
Colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related death for men and women. It is expected to kill more than 50,000 people this year, compared to 40,000 for breast cancer. Even though colon cancer is nearly 90 percent preventable when properly screened, African Americans bear the greatest burden over any other group in the U.S.
The exact cause of colon cancer is unknown, but several things that each of us do daily have been linked to a higher risk, including insufficient physical activity, heavy alcohol use, obesity/overweight, smoking, and lack of early detection screening. For colon cancer, screening is recommended at age 50 for all men and women at average risk. However, some doctors have lowered their recommended screening age to 45 for African Americans.
For African American men specifically, screening is relatively low even though they have a 25 percent higher chance of getting colon cancer compared to White men, and their deaths rates from colon cancer are 50 percent higher. This unequal burden causes African American men to have the highest death rates and poorest five-year survival rates among all racial/ethnic groups of both genders. My recommendation: Lower the screening age to 45 for all African Americans, a step already taken by the state of Oregon.
Issues that may contribute to colon cancer inequities among African American men include discrimination, lack of health insurance, medical mistrust, socioeconomic disadvantages, and a lack of timely diagnosis and treatment. CRC treatment costs continue to rise at a higher rate than the average increase in health costs. Nationally, treating colon cancer diagnosed in early stages costs more than $3,000 less than treatment of advanced colon cancer. How much money are we frivolously expending in Minnesota if we fail to address this major public health problem among African American men?
Briefly, Minnesota has long been one of the top three healthiest states in the Midwest, yet the disheartening rates at which African American men die from colon cancer continue to rise and are unacceptable. In light of the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement resulting from the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases, do #BlackLivesMatter when we consider colon cancer disparities among African American men in Minnesota?
Minnesota leaders: These are your people being affected by the disease no one has to die from. Do their lives matter?
Dr. Charles R. Rogers is a post-doctoral associate in the Program in Health Disparities Research at the University of Minnesota Medical School. His recent work includes a study on the attitudes of young adult African American men toward colon cancer screening published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health. He welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.