In tragic news, actor Natalie Desselle-Reid has died of colon cancer at only 53 years old. She was best known for her work on the TV show Eve, as one of the stepsisters in the 1997 retelling of Cinderella starring Brandy and Whitney Houston, and as a star of the 1997 comedy hit B.A.P.S. Desselle-Reid’s family announced her death on her Instagram page on December 7.
“It is with extremely heavy hearts that we share the loss of our beautiful Natalie this morning from colon cancer,” the statement read. “She was a bright light in this world. A queen. An extraordinary mother and wife. Her diverse career touched so many and she will be loved forever. Naturally, we are grieving and processing this profound loss and we thank you in advance for respecting our privacy at this extremely difficult time.”
Colorectal cancer (which includes cancer of the colon, or large intestine, and of the rectum, or the last section of the colon) is the fourth most common and fourth most deadly cancer in the United States. In both areas, it’s behind female breast cancer, prostate cancer, and lung and bronchial cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
According to the Mayo Clinic, colon cancer typically begins as non-cancerous clumps of cells in the colon called polyps. These polyps often don’t cause any symptoms, especially early on, but can become cancerous over time. (This can take up to 10 to 15 years, according to the American Cancer Society.)
A person with more advanced colon cancer may begin to notice symptoms like a change in bowel habits (such as more frequent diarrhea or extended bouts of constipation) or a feeling like they haven’t completely emptied their bowels after using the bathroom. Symptoms can also include rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, fatigue or weakness, and unexplained weight loss, according to the Mayo Clinic. The exact symptoms and their severity depend on how advanced a person’s cancer is and exactly where it is within the colon.
Some people are at higher risk for colon cancer, including those with a family history of the illness or with underlying conditions affecting the intestines (like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis). Certain lifestyle risks can also indicate a higher risk of colon cancer, such as excessive alcohol use, not eating sufficient amounts of fiber, and smoking. But people with these risk factors don’t always develop colon cancer, and people without these risk factors can wind up with the disease as well.
Screening for colon cancer can sometimes make it easier to catch and treat. Stool tests and colonoscopies are the main screening method for colon cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic. Stool tests can screen for changes in DNA or hidden blood that might indicate an issue, but they are not as sensitive as colonoscopies. A colonoscopy requires people to thoroughly cleanse their bowels (often through laxatives) before the procedure, and then a doctor investigates the entire colon with a camera attached to a thin tube. During this procedure, a doctor can remove visible polyps and take samples of any abnormal-seeming tissue to further investigate. “Virtual” colonoscopies—another name for CT scans in this context—are also a possibility, though they still require complete emptying of the bowel, and any abnormalities require a follow-up appointment for a traditional colonoscopy.
For people without additional risk factors, the American Cancer Society recommends that colon cancer screening begin at age 45, no matter a person’s race. The US Preventive Services Task Force previously recommended screening at age 50 but is currently considering lowering their universal age for screening to 45. This change could help get screening covered as a zero-copay preventive test for insured people starting at 45 instead of 50, according to CNN. In turn, this move may help save lives.
The colon cancer risk for young people is low overall, though people under age 55 are increasingly being diagnosed with and dying from colon cancer, as SELF previously explained. It’s also essential to note that the disease disproportionately affects and kills Black people in the United States. Along with Desselle-Reid, Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman is another recent high-profile tragic loss to the disease.
According to the CDC, the five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer is about 65%, and there has been an overall drop in colon cancer diagnoses and deaths over the last few decades. However, as of 2017 (the most recent year available for CDC data), a racial disparity in colon cancer cases and deaths remains. For every 100,000 white women, there were 32 cases of colorectal cancer and 11 deaths, which increased to 35 cases and 15 deaths among every 100,000 Black women. Colon cancer is more common in men—for every 100,000 white men, there were 41 cases of colorectal cancer and 16 men died. Among the same number of Black men, there were 48 cases of colorectal cancer and 22 deaths.
It’s not entirely clear why these disparities exist, though as SELF previously reported, experts are considering how symptoms may present differently across races as well as the structural inequities that create barriers to health care, appropriate screening, and treatment for communities of color. Inequity does seem to be a foundational factor behind colon cancer disparities. Research suggests that doctors don’t recommend colon cancer screening often enough, especially to Black people. And once Black patients are diagnosed, there’s further evidence that they’re less likely than white people to receive surgery and chemotherapy, which can be life-prolonging and life-saving treatments. Eliminating systemic racism that contributes to these kinds of disparities will depend on the health care system rooting out structural inequities that deprive Black people and other people of color of years of health and vitality.
Some experts have been pushing for earlier colon cancer screening recommendations for Black people based on these disparities. For example, in 2009, the American College of Gastroenterology updated its guidelines to recommend screening Black people with an average risk at age 45. If the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force makes their new screening guidelines official, they would match this recommendation for all races.
When it comes to your personal colon cancer risk, there are a few things you can try to do if you’re concerned. First, be aware of any risk factors you have for the disease and monitor your bathroom habits for any changes that could indicate an issue. If you have a doctor you trust, whether that’s a primary care doctor or gastroenterologist, bring up your concerns and see what kind of screening they recommend. If that involves doing any testing or having doctor’s appointments while the pandemic is ongoing, the very thought of that might be scary, and that makes sense. But experts are generally recommending that people continue to keep up with potentially life-saving preventive care depending on their personal health histories. There are ways to receive this kind of care as safely as possible during COVID-19, so if you have any concerns or questions, do your best to talk them through with a medical professional you trust.