NBC News’ Today Show anchor and co-host Craig Melvin led a discussion at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) in March 2022 with colorectal oncologists Fiyinfolu Balogun and Andrea Cercek and gastroenterologist Robin Mendelsohn. Drs. Cercek and Mendelsohn are Co-Directors of MSK’s Center for Young Onset Colorectal and Gastrointestinal Cancer.
- MSK and national guidelines recommend that people at average risk for colorectal cancer start getting screened at age 45.
- Your race can play a role in your risk for getting colorectal cancer. For example, in the United States, colorectal cancers affect the Black community at a higher rate than any other race.
- MSK recommends that people at higher risk for colorectal cancer talk with their healthcare provider about when to start screening.
Diagnoses Happening Younger
MSK’s Chief Health Equity Officer, gynecologic cancer surgeon Carol Brown, introduced Melvin and provided opening remarks at the event.
“For many decades, colorectal cancer was a disease that we saw affecting people in their 60s and 70s. But more recently, there’s been a steady rise of this diagnosis in people under the age of 50,” she said. “The cases of colorectal cancer among younger adults are projected to double by the year 2030, and deaths in this age group are also on the rise.”
Melvin himself has a personal connection to young-onset colorectal cancer. In 2016, his older brother, Lawrence Meadows, was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer at age 39. In 2020, the disease caused Meadows’ death at age 43.
Destigmatizing the Symptoms
Melvin shared some of his personal story during the event and talked about his advocacy work to change perceptions, raise awareness, and increase funding for research and treatments for colorectal cancer, a disease with symptoms that can be uncomfortable for people to acknowledge and discuss.
“I don’t think colorectal cancer has gotten the attention that it deserves,” Melvin said. “If you are getting screened properly, and if you’re listening to your body, and if you are familiar with your family history, by and large, colorectal cancer is a cancer that can be prevented or treated.”
“A lot of folks don’t realize that it’s not a death sentence,” he added.
Age and Race
During the talk, MSK experts emphasized the importance of becoming familiar with whether your family has a history of colorectal cancer. Having a close relative diagnosed with colorectal cancer might mean you need to start screening for the disease before the recommended age of 45. MSK’s colorectal cancer screening guidelines can be found here.
Dr. Balogun discussed the disparities the Black community faces in terms of colorectal diagnoses and deaths, highlighting that most are due to environmental factors, not biology or genetics.
He explained that environmental factors are things you didn’t have when you were born, but you experience during your life. For example, some racial and ethnic groups have decreased access to high-quality cancer care, newer treatments, and specialized hospitals, along with lower screening rates, more chronic health conditions, and differences in socioeconomic status. Environmental factors also include less access to fresh foods, grocery stores, or green spaces where people can exercise.
“All these things are [the result of] social or structural racism,” he said.
Advocating for Yourself
Dr. Cercek ended the discussion with a reminder that each person is their own best advocate, but your care team should be your partners.
“We’re in this together, and we not only treat the patient but support them with services and extra support for them for their families,” she said.
She said she tries to convey to each of her patients and their families that together, “we’ve got this.”