African Americans run a greater risk of developing — and dying from — colon cancer than any other U.S. racial or ethnic group, according to the American Cancer Society.
That's why it's particularly critical that African American men and women get timely and regular screenings, which can prevent the disease or catch it at a stage when it is easily treatable, said the Washington Comprehensive Cancer Control Partnership, a coalition of organizations dedicated to cancer prevention and education.
Each year, colon cancer kills nearly 60,000 Americans, making it the second-leading cause of cancer death among all groups in the United States. The partnership advises men and women age 50 and older to start getting checked for colon cancer.
Screenings should start at an earlier age if a person has a family history or other risk factors.
Tests are critical because colon cancer can develop long before any signs or symptoms occur. Even then, the symptoms are often vague and mistaken for more common illnesses. Signs of colorectal cancer include unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain, blood in the stool and changes in bowel habits.
African Americans, Native Americans and some Asian/Pacific Islanders and Hispanics are 10 to 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with advanced disease compared to non-Hispanic Whites, according to a 2005 report by researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
In addition, African Americans, Native Americans and some Hispanic Whites have a 20 to 30 percent higher risk of dying from colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon or rectum), the report found.
Colon cancer is usually preventable with timely screenings to detect and remove colorectal polyps, grape-like growths in the lining of the colon and rectum that can become cancerous.
African Americans face the greatest risk, in part, because they are less likely to get tested, according to the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation. Dietary habits, tobacco use, genetic factors and disparities in access to health care also may increase their risk, according to the foundation.
The Cancer Control Partnership offers these tips for older African American adults and others:
• Get screened starting at age 50 (or younger if the disease runs in your family. In such cases, doctors advise that testing begin at age 40, or 10 years before the youngest affected family member.)
• Ask a doctor about the different tests that exist for detecting polyps and tumors — including a colonoscopy, barium enema, stool testing and a sigmoidoscopy.