Zoe Saldana is one of the millions of Americans whose lives have been touched by colorectal cancer. She has a very personal connection to the issue, “with my family being touched by its devastating effects,” she tells SELF via email, “as well as losing my dear friend and Avengers costar Chadwick Boseman last year.”
Colorectal cancer, which includes both cancers of the colon and the rectum, is the fourth most common type of cancer and third leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S., according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). But it often goes undetected, Saldana points out. It typically begins with polyps forming on the inside of the colon, which can over time become cancerous, the Mayo Institute explains. These polyps can be small and produce no (or few) symptoms.
That’s why regular screening—to find and remove precancerous polyps and detect cancerous poylps early on—is so important in the fight against the disease. “I wish people understood that the simple act of screening early and regularly can save lives,” Saldana says. The five-year relative survival rate for colorectal cancer is 64.6%, and the earlier a person is diagnosed the higher their odds of surviving five years after being diagnosed, the NCI explains.
For people at average risk of colorectal cancer—meaning they don’t have extra risk factors, like family history—the most common recommendation is to start getting screened at age 50, according to the NCI. But not all groups are affected equally. Colon cancer disproportionately affects those in some communities of color, Saldana says, particularly Black people. And some oncologists believe that screening should start earlier for Black people, as research and CDC data indicate Black people are significantly likelier to develop and die from colon cancer compared to white people.
In addition to traditional in-office screenings, there are less invasive at-home stool tests considered to be acceptable screening tools by the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). These tests check for tiny amounts of blood in the stool, the NCI explains. (Cancerous and noncancerous polyps can bleed.) If a person gets a positive result, the next step is to see their doctor for a colonoscopy.
Saldana believes these potentially lifesaving tests are underutilized—especially in the midst of COVID-19, when people are deferring regular doctor visits where they would be screened. “Many people do not know their options when it comes to safe and effective screening tools, especially during the pandemic when people are nervous to leave their homes and attend annual checkups,” Saldana tells SELF.
That’s why Saldana is working with LetsGetChecked to promote the brand’s Colon Cancer Screening Test, which detects signs of blood in stool. And LetsGetChecked is working with the nonprofit Colorectal Cancer Alliance to help people in underserved communities get tested, donating one million dollars’ worth of their at-home tests and additional funds. “Screening plays a huge role in the fight against colon cancer,” Saldana says, “but inaccessibility or lack of resources concerning testing options is an issue, especially among BIPOC communities, despite its potentially lifesaving results.”
Along with access, Saldana believes another key to encouraging early screening is proactively starting open and ongoing conversations about colorectal cancer. “Being open, honest, and direct with family members and loved ones is the only way to stop deadly and hard-to-detect diseases like colon cancer in their tracks,” she says. “My advice to everyone would be to openly discuss screening on a regular basis, even if it seems difficult. Believe me, it is far more difficult to lose a family member to a devastating disease like colon cancer than sit down with them and have a conversation.” That includes people under 50, Saldana points out, among whom colorectal cancer rates are rising.
If that discussion still sounds a little intimidating, Saldana has a few suggestions that might help. She recommends approaching the conversation with love and respect, acknowledging any assumptions you’re making, asking thoughtful questions, and listening closely. “If you lean into the conversation with a positive attitude and create a safe space for the other person, they will see you are coming from a place of care and love,” Saldana says. And if it doesn’t go as planned, that’s okay, she adds; be kind to yourself and keep trying.
“The only way to move forward and save lives, is to destigmatize conversations surrounding our health,” she says. “Taking control of our health should not be considered taboo; in fact, it should be celebrated.”