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African-Americans and Colon Cancer Risks

Posted 3/19/2015 by UHBlog

Read more about colon cancer prevention, risks and screening options.

Did you know that African-Americans are more likely to develop colon cancer, get it at an early age, and are more likely to die of it, when compared with Caucasians? In fact, African-Americans have the highest rates of colon cancer of any ethnic group in the U.S. These differences hold up even when doctors consider social and economic differences among ethnic groups, such as access to health care.

“The differences persist even when people have tumors of similar stage and are cared for in the same way,” says Sanford D. Markowitz, MD, PhD, a medical oncologist at University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center.

Dr. Markowitz and colleagues at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center at Case Western Reserve University recently identified gene changes (mutations) that only appear in the tumors of African-American colon cancer patients. They were the first team to gather enough tumor samples from African-American patients to make the comparison, analyzing colon tumors from 103 African-American and 129 Caucasian patients. Before their study, only four colon cancer tumors from African-American patients had been sequenced genetically.

The research team is exploring whether genetic differences explain why colon cancer is more common and deadly among African-Americans. They’re also looking into whether this new knowledge may lead to more targeted therapies for African-American patients.

In the meantime, Dr. Markowitz’ message for African-Americans is clear: Get screened for colon cancer beginning at age 50. Screening can find the precursors to cancer before they become cancerous. However, in general, screening for colon cancer among African-Americans is less common than among Caucasians.

He recommends three main options:

  • Colonoscopy every 10 years (the preferred option), beginning at age 50
  • Fecal immunochemical testing (FIT) to detect blood in stool, once a year beginning at age 50
  • Stool DNA screening, beginning at age 50, and repeated every 1 to 3 years (more clinical research is needed to better determine the interval for repeat testing)

“There will be 50,000 colon cancer deaths this year in the U.S.,” Dr. Markowitz says. “Each one of those deaths is a tragedy because colon cancer is the ‘poster child’ for a disease that is curable if caught early. It’s just that simple.”

Screening for colon cancer at UH is available through University Hospitals Digestive Health Institute. To schedule your screening colonoscopy or to meet with a gastroenterologist to discuss other screening options, you can request an appointment online, or by calling 1-866-UH4-CARE.

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