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Celebs, organizations work to raise awareness of colorectal cancer among Black men

Jamie Foxx and Deon Cole are among those encouraging men to get screened.
Jamie Foxx
Jamie Foxx is lending his voice to a campaign that encourages Black people to get screened for colon cancer.Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Months after the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman, other celebrities are stepping forward to help raise awareness of how colorectal cancer impacts Black men.

Jamie Foxx appears in a new campaign from Stand Up To Cancer that launched this week, aiming to encourage screenings for early detection and prevention. "Black-ish" star Deon Cole is also using his voice for the cause, telling TODAY that he was inspired by a good friend who's struggling with the disease.

"It's just something men don't talk about, and they should," he said. "We're trying to break that, and talk about this, have conversations about it."

Deon Cole
Comedian Deon Cole is trying to raise awareness of colon cancer. Leon Bennett / Getty Images

In the U.S., Black people are 20% more likely to get colorectal cancer, a cancer that starts in the colon or rectum, than white people, and 40% more likely to die from it, according to the American Cancer Society.

Black men in particular may be especially at risk. There's a slight male predominance compared to women for colon cancer in general, but there may be other factors, too. Men who are the primary earners for their families may be hesitant to take time off to get screened, for example. Or, as Cole put it: "Men don't like going to the doctor. We think we all got capes and we're invincible."

But this past year in particular has highlighted just how untrue that is. Boseman's death in August, at age 43, put a sudden spotlight on colon cancer, a disease that's rising in young adults. While many people think of the disease as something that only affects the elderly, more adults in their 20s and 30s are being diagnosed.

TODAY's own Craig Melvin has been speaking out, too; his older brother, Lawrence Meadows, died of colon cancer in December, also at the age of 43.

Katie Couric is another celebrity trying trying to raise awareness, having lost her husband to colon cancer in 1998.

Dr. Erin King-Mullins, a colorectal surgeon in Atlanta, says the increased attention is much-needed.

Many people are unaware of the symptoms, which can include abdominal pain and rectal bleeding, or the importance of getting screened, especially if someone in your family has colon cancer — or any cancer.

"We can save lives by just having a conversation," King-Mullins told TODAY. "Have those difficult conversations with your family members — if someone has had a colonoscopy, if it was abnormal, if someone has been diagnosed with colorectal cancer. (If so), that impacts when family members should start getting screened."

The American Cancer Society recommends people start getting regularly screened for colon cancer at age 45 (lowered from 50 in 2018), although King-Mullins said that people with a relevant family history should be screened sooner.

Part of the challenge related to screening is just getting the word out, she said. She pointed to studies showing that the No. 1 reason patients don't get a colonoscopy is that they weren't instructed to do so by a physician. She said many doctors don't even know the recommended screening age is now 45.

Research has shown that Black people are diagnosed with colon cancer at an earlier age and at a later stage of the disease than people from other races. King-Mullins is chair of the American Society of Colon & Rectal Surgeons' newly-formed Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee, which aims to reduce the disparities in cancer screening treatment.

Stars like Foxx and Cole are helping, too.

Cole partnered with Cottonelle and BLKHLTH, a nonprofit tackling racism in health care, to encourage early screenings, as colon cancer is often curable if it's caught early. They're even giving away free screening kits that people can do at home. (Colonoscopies are still the best way to detect colon cancer or precancerous growths called polyps, but the at-home screening kits are helpful, too.)

With more young people being affected by the disease, it's more important than ever to talk about it.

"Cancer affects everyone," Foxx said in a press release for his campaign with Stand Up to Cancer and Exact Sciences. "I’ve lost good friends — young friends — to this deadly disease. We need to make sure that we are taking care of our bodies, paying attention to certain things that you didn’t necessarily think about when you were younger."