What are the signs of colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer has received a lot of attention this year due to the untimely death of celebrity Chadwick Boseman who, much to his credit, waged a four-year silent battle with the disease while maintaining his extraordinarily active lifestyle. Mr. Boseman was first diagnosed back in 2016 when he was in his thirties, thus establishing an extremely early onset for the illness.

This article intends to briefly discuss the etiology, signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer. The goal is to educate as many people as possible in order to recognize (and hopefully curb) the incidence of this disease within the American (even more specifically, African American) community.

What is colorectal cancer, anyway?

To answer the above question, we should first define the word “cancer.” Put simply, cancer is any disease process that occurs within the body that is characterized by undifferentiated (un-specialized) cells that multiply (usually unchecked), “overtake” and disrupt the normal function of any specified body part/organ. If left untreated, cancer can spread (metastasize) to other areas of the body and cause severe global dysfunction, morbidity and in many cases, death.

Colorectal cancer originates in the colon and/or rectum. The condition usually starts out with an abnormal growth (called a polyp) on the inner lining of the colon; however, not all polyps evolve into cancer. In fact, it can take some years for a polyp to become cancerous; which is why early screening is so important. When a polyp does become cancerous it can grow into the inner lining of the colon wall, eventually reaching the outer layers and into the blood vessels and lymph nodes. The cancer is then transported to different areas of the body (metastasis) where it continues on its destructive journey.

What causes colorectal cancer?

There are several factors that have been associated with increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. Some of these factors are lifestyle-related (and therefore changeable). These include: lack of exercise, smoking, obesity and diet.

Other risk factors for this type of cancer are: age (individuals aged 50+ are at a higher risk of developing colon and rectal cancer than their younger counterparts), personal history of colon polyps (adenomas), inflammatory bowel disease, inherited syndromes, diabetes (type 2) and racial/ethnic background.

More specifically, African Americans are the most afflicted group with the highest incidence and mortality rates of all racial groups in the United States. The risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 20% higher and the mortality rate is disturbingly high at 40% compared to other racial groups.

What do symptoms of colorectal cancer look like?

Unfortunately, colorectal cancer many times cannot be detected right away as many symptoms do not appear until the later stages of the disease. However, when symptoms do arise they can include the following: diarrhea and/or constipation lasting several days, bowel movement “urgency”

that is not relieved by having a bowel movement, bloody stools, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, marked/unintentional weight loss and generalized weakness and fatigue. Another major symptom of colorectal cancer is anemia (low blood cell count) due to excessive blood loss into the digestive tract.

Is colorectal cancer preventable?

According to the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG), “(c)olorectal cancer is the number 2 cancer killer in the United States, yet it is one of the most preventable types of cancer.” Early detection is the key to preventing this disease.

The “gold standard” for early detection is colonoscopy; wherein precancerous polyps can not only be detected, but in certain instances they can also be removed. This is a very powerful means of cancer prevention; however, it must be taken advantage of as early as possible to achieve the best outcome. Most significantly, the ACG reports that “(t)he development of more than 75-90 percent of colorectal cancer can be avoided through early detection and removal of precancerous polyps.”

What types of screens are there?

It goes without saying that early detection of colorectal cancer is essential for improved rates of survival. As mentioned above, colonoscopy is the most powerful method of detection for colorectal cancer.

Another pre-screening tool is the Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT). This test assesses for trace amounts of blood in the stool which can further determine the need for a colonoscopy.

There are a few other screening tools including the Flexible Sigmoidoscopy, CT colonography, Fecal DNA Testing and  Annual Hemoccult Sensa. These screens, while effective, are not as sensitive or as powerful as the colonoscopy.


What about African Americans?

For African Americans specifically, earlier detection can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Black Americans are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer at an earlier age than other ethnic groups for reasons which remain unclear. They are also dying earlier than their cultural peers, which makes early screening even more crucial for African Americans.

According to the ACG (2009), the new recommended screening age for African Americans has decreased from 50 to 45. In light of this information (which is now over a decade old), African Americans continue to be at the highest risk for developing the disease. Much of this is due to many members of the African American community remaining unaware of the dire need to not only be screened, but screened by age 45 or even earlier in some cases. Had Chadwick Boseman been screened earlier he probably would still be among the living.

What to do next…?

Everyone who is an adult above a certain age (usually starting in the mid-thirties) needs to consider and actively pursue colorectal cancer screening. More specifically, African Americans and other people of color need to be extra-vigilant because of their increased morbidity and mortality rates due to colorectal cancer. Some steps to follow include:

  1. Talk to your physician about getting screened for colorectal cancer if you are above a certain age.
  2. Consider colonoscopy versus other types of screenings. It is the most conclusive and effective screening tool.
  3. Make appropriate lifestyle changes including a better diet, more exercise and avoidance of smoking.
  4. Encourage other members of your community to learn more about and get screened for colorectal cancer when appropriate.

Knowledge is power; and acting with knowledge will enable not only African Americans but EVERYONE to finally get a handle on colorectal cancer for good.



About Us

Peace and blessings! Welcome to MorningStar Health–an online information hub for increasing awareness of health-related conditions. At MorningStar we believe that “knowledge is power”  and that a person is empowered by a deeper knowledge of his/her personal health status.

Our Story

My name is Peter Jones and I am a practicing occupational therapist. Way back in 2013, my wife and I formulated a start-up entitled MorningStar Health Systems. Back then we envisioned our company as a premier provider of rehab services (occupational, physical and speech therapy) in the Washington DC metro area.

Seven years later, in light of the recent changes in the health care delivery system, we found ourselves challenged with finding a better way to serve our local community. After months of soul-searching, we decided to make our journey more personal by examining our own family history.

What we discovered is that we needed to know more about the significance of some of the health conditions in our own family and how they impact our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Thus, MorningStar Health was born!

Our current mission is to provide an online “safe space” where anyone can go for the latest information and discourse on specific health conditions that plague the American community as well as the world at large.

Our Motivation

Despite our entrance into the ‘Information Age,’ many people remain blissfully unaware of the incidence and prevalence of diseases like colorectal cancer. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS, 2020), African Americans are in the highest risk group for developing and dying from this insidious disease.

Moreover, with the sudden and tragic loss of renown film star Chadwick Boseman, the case for early detection and treatment of colorectal cancer has never been more crucial. Closer to home, we also discovered a history of the condition in our family, which has sensitized us to this issue exponentially.

All of these factors have brought it home for us (and hopefully many others) that early and ongoing awareness of one’s own personal health status is of the utmost importance. Consequently, at MorningStar Health we have made the provision of up to date online resources for increasing knowledge of your personal health status “mission critical.”

Our Purpose

The purpose of MorningStar Health is to “shine a bright light” on the specter of colorectal cancer and other diseases that negatively impact our community. Our ultimate goal is to empower as many people as we can with up to date information about the disease including risk factors, prevention and management.

The information provided on this site is NOT intended to be used as a replacement for sound medical advice from health care practitioners; however, we do intend to provide accurate and reliable information that can and should be vetted alongside traditional medical advice.

Our Vision

We envision a world free of diseases like colorectal cancer. We believe that early detection along with a proper diet and a healthy lifestyle can make this vision a reality.

If you have any feedback, questions or comments, feel free to leave them below. We would definitely appreciate it!

To Your Health,

Peter Jones, MPH, OTR/L