Superheroes Save Lives – and So Do Cancer Screenings

Cecelia Brewington, MD, FACR, a professor and board-certified radiologist practicing at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, and member of the American College of Radiology® (ACR®) Colon Cancer Committee, contributed this post.

Like so many of us, I was deeply saddened to hear the news of Chadwick Boseman’s passing as a result of stage IV colon cancer. I was also amazed by his strength as he persevered through his illness to bring us so many remarkable films and the Black superhero, King T’Challa, in Marvel’s “Black Panther.” I was deeply moved by the fact that, during his own treatment, he often visited with young cancer patients.

For me, as a Black physician at UT Southwestern Medical Center who serves on the ACR Colon Cancer Committee, the best way I can personally honor his legacy is by working to prevent losing more young Black men like him to colorectal cancer by encouraging screening. Did you know that Black people have the highest rates of colon cancer of any racial ethnic group in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS)? Black individuals are about 20% more likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 40% more likely to die. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Some have pointed out that Boseman’s death at only 43 makes him even younger than the recommended age at which to begin regular colorectal cancer screening (age 45). That is true, for those at average risk of colorectal cancer. But those with a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or inflammatory bowel disease – or those who are experiencing symptoms like rectal bleeding – might need to start screening before age 45, be screened more often, or get specific tests. That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor to determine which cancer screenings are right for you.

On average 30% of us who should be screened for colorectal cancer don’t get tested – and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, colorectal cancer screening has dropped 86% during the pandemic relative to averages prior to January 20, 2020. If you’re among those who should be screened but have not, I want you to know this is the first step to take that is in your control. See your doctor and get set up for screening!  There are safe, socially distanced options.

Virtual colonoscopy, known medically as CT Colonography, is a highly accurate, safe, and minimally-invasive test that is preferred by many who can’t or won’t get a colonoscopy. It is also recommended by the ACS. Virtual colonoscopy takes about 20 minutes, during which pictures are taken of the inside of the colon using a CT scanner. It does not require being put to sleep, so you can drive yourself to and from the screening and return to your normal daily activities immediately after the test. It can also be performed in a lower risk manner that maintains social distancing in the COVID-19 era. If a pre-cancerous polyp is found, you can have a follow-up colonoscopy to have it removed before it becomes a cancer (it is estimated that only 14 percent need to go on to colonoscopy).

Conventional colonoscopy is another option – which is the only other exam that can reliably detect pre-cancer polyps throughout the entire colon before they turn into cancer. It can also be performed in a low risk manner during the COVID-19 pandemic. You will need to be put to sleep for this exam and have a driver, but if a polyp is found it can be removed during that exam.

I urge you to talk to your doctor about what it might look like for you to #ReturntoCare even amidst the current pandemic and get your PREVENTIVE screening! The best test is the test that gets done. As a physician who provides CT Colonography, I can attest to the fact that this option has the power to save many lives – and one of them just might be yours.

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