Dr. Bettina Drake

Bettina Drake, PhD, MPH, Division of Public Health Sciences Professor, Washington University School of Medicine, and Associate Director of Community Outreach and Engagement, Siteman Cancer Center.

The world was shocked to learn that actor Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer on August 28 – he was just 43 years old. It was a terrible reminder that colon cancer can strike sooner than many of us might think. But no matter your age, there are steps you can take right now to lower your risk.

By far the most important action you can take if you’re 50 or older is to get your routine screening. Colon cancer can strike at any age, but it’s far more frequent in older adults, and our risk increases as we age, especially after 60.

Routine screening for colon and colorectal cancer should begin at age 50 for most people, but should start at age 45 for those at higher risk, including African Americans, people with an inflammatory bowel disease (such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) or a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or colon polyps.

Polyps are noncancerous growths in the intestine that can turn into cancer. When possible, be sure to talk to your loved ones to learn about your family history. Regardless of age, it’s important to be aware of changes in your stool or bowel habits. If something seems wrong, make an appointment with a doctor.

For most young people, prevention is the most important way to reduce risk later in life. Some things you can do right now to help prevent colon cancer: maintain a healthy weight; limit servings of red meat and processed meat; get 30 minutes of physical activity every day.

Besides skin cancer, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. The good news is that it’s highly preventable.

To assess your personal risk for colon and other cancers, and to learn more about how you can lower that risk, visit Your Disease Risk, a free online tool, at YourDiseaseRisk.com.

Youth and adults around the country have held memorial services for Mr. Boseman, mourning his loss and ours, including all that he had yet to bring to the world through his art and presence. There’s another way we can honor him – by making sure we and our loved ones understand who should be screened for colon cancer, and when. Then, make a plan to make it happen. We’ve already lost enough.

Bettina Drake, PhD, MPH, is a professor in the Division of Public Health Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine and associate director of Community Outreach and Engagement at Siteman Cancer Center. She is a cancer epidemiologist, committed to promoting health equity and cancer prevention strategies.

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