Preventing Colorectal Cancer in the Black Community Starts with Telling the Story

Doctor talking to patient

Chadwick Boseman. We all know his story. He was a Howard University alumnus, respected philanthropist, and multifaceted actor, who gave us James Brown, Jackie Robinson, and Thurgood Marshall, before he took on the role that crossed political lines, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and language barriers across the world. Chadwick Boseman passed away at just 43 years of age on August 28, 2020.  He had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

“Black people in this country are 20% more likely to be diagnosed with colon cancer and 40% more likely to die from it. The age for routine screenings has recently been lowered to 45, if you are 45 years of age or older, please get screened,” said Taylor Simone Boseman through tears as she pleaded with a virtual audience tuned into 52nd Annual NAACP Awards.  “Don’t put it off any longer, please get screened. This disease is beatable if you catch it in the early stages and don’t have any time to waste even if you have no family history. And even if you think that nothing is wrong.”

Just prior to accepting her late husband’s posthumous NAACP Image Award the clips rolled, highlighting a lifetime of achievements in the film and entertainment industry, cut short all soon. An already gut-wrenching moment for many, to see once again on-screen, and hear the voice of a talented, young Black actor who played one of the most iconic characters of all time as Marvel’s Black Panther, was met with the equally difficult task of seeing his wife pleading with her people, his people, my people, to take back our power and get screened for colon cancer.

His is just one story…What about the stories of…

  • Shannon Sylvain, 32, a vibrant young woman, who dared to live out her dreams in television and film production. Sylvain later founded Brown Sugar Rehab as a resource to educate Black people on the signs, symptoms, and prevention of the disease.
  • LaToya Wright, 31, a friend, daughter, cousin, professional and young, talented liturgical dancer who performed often for her church. She became a wellness advocate and blogger to share her journey with others.
  • Ahmad “Real” Givens, 33, brother to Chance and reality television star that came to rise in the era of VH1’s reality television reign. A beautiful man who wanted a real chance at love.
  • Lawrence Meadows, 43, husband to Angela, his childhood sweetheart, father of two children ages 11 and 7, Baptist minister, entrepreneur, and according to his brother, NBC News’ Craig Melvin, “…one of the best human beings you would’ve ever know,” who was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 39 and died of the disease in January.

Some names you will recognize, others you won’t, yet these four share the common thread of being young, Black people diagnosed with colorectal cancer, more commonly known as colon cancer.

We must remember their stories too.

Colorectal cancer is the 3rd most common cancer among men and women in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, not only are African Americans more likely to die from the disease, but research now shows a rise in colorectal cancer rates among young Black people that fall outside of the recommended screening guidelines. As with all health disparities, there are many reasons for the higher incidences of mortality and morbidity including socioeconomic status, systemic and institutional racism, and epigenetic changes. But screenings can aid in catching precancerous polyps before they mutate into cancer or finding cancer early when treatment works best.

According to the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable, a few of the overall barriers to screening are procrastination, misinformation on the preparation process and actual screening, financial impact if screenings are not covered by insurance or perception that screenings are expensive, and misconception that colon cancer is primarily hereditary and persons without a family history need not get screened. As a health communicator and a Black woman, I have personal and professional motivation to help my community make more informed decisions, become their own advocates, and do what’s in their power to take control of their health.

So, how can health communicators effectively combat misconceptions and misinformation to reduce stigma surrounding the disease, aversion to screening methods, and convey the importance of colorectal cancer screenings among Blacks living in the U.S.? In the same way Taylor Simone Boseman issued her powerful and compelling call to action – Tell the Stories!

Storytelling is an integral part of the Black experience. Emanating from deep in the diaspora, through the journey of our ancestors brought to America, to the role of religion and spirituality, to Friday night game nights and kickbacks with friends, stories are part of who we are. Storytelling is one of many cultural traits shared by Black people across the globe, and used as a method not only to entertain but to inform and teach life lessons. All too often however, health is not one of those life lessons. No longer can we be a people that is silent and keeps our health issues in-house. We must rise up and tell our stories as a method of saving ourselves and our communities.

Effective storytelling will incorporate messages that increase awareness, understanding, and adoption of colorectal cancer screenings and:

  • Underscore the urgency of the need to get screened and not procrastinate prioritizing health.
  • Underpin prioritizing personal health.
  • Explain the benefits of colorectal cancer screenings, signs, and symptoms of disease.
  • Foster a peer-to-peer approach which can help reduce stigma, personalize the call to action, create a sense of community, and reduce the idea that people are alone in getting screened.
  • Share the experiences of those who have been screened to reduce misinformation around the prep and screening process.
  • Showcase a variety of screening options.
  • Incorporate calls to action that encourage listeners, viewers, and readers to start a dialogue with their doctors, loved ones, and friends, and share their stories.

Effective storytelling normalizes uncomfortable conversations and helps to make them more comfortable for us and those around us. Often, topics that center around the restroom, regularity, bowel movements, and the like are considered taboo subjects that no one wants to talk about. But the more we talk, the more we share our stories, the more we normalize taking control of our own health and putting our health back in our hands. The more we see ourselves telling our own stories, the more empowered we are to continue the conversation in our homes, with our friends and families, and with our doctors.

“Fearlessness means taking the first step, even when you don’t know where it will take you,” Chadwick Boseman.

It’s not the strength of our silence. It’s the power of our stories.

Angela Young, MPS
Senior Account Supervisor