Colorectal cancer disparities persist in Black community, early screening, education needed

Jonathan Owens, 58, of Fall River has been undergoing chemotherapy treatments for stage four metastatic colorectal cancer for the last seven years.

“It’s hard … you lose your hair, skin starts peeling off, inside of your mouth gets freckles, your gums bleed …” Owens said.

It all began in 2014 when his wife noticed some nodules on his neck and he later started feeling stabbing pains in his chest.

Owens was diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer, the median survival rate for which is about three years, a marker Owens has already beat.

He started chemotherapy on what would become a yearslong journey and also had a grapefruit-sized tumor removed from his stomach that took parts of his inner stomach lining, pancreas and small intestines along with it.

“The only thing I was thinking in my head was, I was talking to God and I asked God, ‘why me?’ That’s all I could say,” Owens told the Herald.

Right now, the cancer is in submission and isn’t growing, so Owens can take a chemo break for a few months before starting back up again, a routine he’s grown accustomed to.

“I just keep my head up. I got my family, I have my wife and I got my kids, they’re very supportive and I got God,” Owens said.

Colorectal cancer rates in Black patients like Owens are the highest of any racial or ethnic group in the country, according to the American Cancer Society.

African Americans are about 20% more likely to get colorectal cancer and about 40% more likely to die from it than most other groups. The disease is what killed actor and “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman at just 43 years old last year.

Owens said getting sick was shocking, and constantly being on chemotherapy drains the body and makes it difficult to work and set plans for the future.

“I have dreams today and I have things I want to do and all that stuff stopped as soon as I got sick,” Owens said.

Dr. Marios Giannakis, an oncologist with the Dana-Farber Gastrointestinal Cancer Center and Owens’ doctor said he’s done “remarkably well with the disease.”

Giannakis said Owens has “beaten the odds and the prognosis now is much more favorable.”

March is national colorectal cancer awareness month, and Giannakis said it’s especially important to recognize the ongoing disparities in the Black community.

Colorectal cancer tends to present at more advanced stages with more aggressive tumors in Black patients and there are lower screening rates and colonoscopies among Black patients, said Giannakis.

Black patients are also less likely to get the same intensity and duration of treatment as white patients, according to Giannakis.

He said the disparities are related to a vast array of issues such as socioeconomic factors, health education, insurance, comorbidities, dietary habits and access to care.

Closing that gap starts with education and the infrastructure to offer access to good health care to all who need it, Knowledge about colorectal cancer, what a diagnosis means and what catching it means and raising awareness is important.”

Colorectal cancer is preventable and can be caught early with proper screening. Owens said, “I would say to anyone go get a colonoscopy, just go check to see if you are OK, if you don’t you can wind up like me.”

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