A month before his 51st birthday, actor Will Smith underwent his first colonoscopy. His vlog took social media by storm and has resonated with men across the country, including in Columbus. Though 90% of cases are preventable, colon cancers still represent the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the country, according to the American Cancer Society. And African Americans have the highest incidence and mortality rates.
If someone had mentioned a colonoscopy to Bernard Asirifi six months ago, he most likely would have wrinkled his nose in disgust and said, “Oh no, I don’t want that.”
Now, though, the Ohio man himself texting friends — middle-aged black men like himself — about the importance of going through the oft-misunderstood procedure and offering contact information for his gastroenterologist.
“I told them, ‘We all have beautiful families,’ and this is really easy to resolve,” said Asirifi, a 44-year-old attorney and father to two young children. “If they want to ask questions, they could, but definitely don’t ignore it.”
A few months ago, Asirifi experienced some blood in his stool, prompting him to see a doctor. Those symptoms coupled with the fact that the American Society of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy recommends African Americans undergo the colon-cancer screening at age 45, led him to follow up with the procedure in mid-November.
His views on the entire process have changed, and he wants to share what he learned, especially because his colonoscopy found a precancerous polyp that was removed.
“The prep is the worst part of it,” said Asirifi. “The procedure, I don’t remember. They said, ‘Roll over and we’re going to give you some medicine.’ The next thing I remember was my wife was holding my hand.”
It was as easy as that, he said.
African American men sharing their stories of their colonoscopies can do wonders for increased awareness about the importance of the cancer screening, especially since they are an at-risk population, which can prompt more people to undergo the procedure, said Dr. Darrell Gray, a gastroenterologist at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center and the James Cancer Center.
Gray celebrated when actor Will Smith posted a YouTube video of himself in November preparing for a colonoscopy, what it was like after he woke up from anesthesia and receiving the results.
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“He’s a black male, a celebrity and is well-known across the nation and world,” said Gray, who also studies and champions diversity in health care as an African American physician. “In plain words, he explains some concerns — what the prep is like, ‘you have to put that where?’ and other questions my everyday patients ask or are too scared to ask.”
The 17-minute video was filmed shortly before Smith’s 51st birthday in September and while it shows the Hollywood superstar goofing off at times, it has a serious message.
“When I decided to shoot this as a vlog, it was much more, ‘Hey, this will be cool. This will be fun,’” Smith said toward the end of the post just after learning the results of the procedure. “I didn’t realize that there would be a precancerous polyp found out of it.”
During the video that has now been viewed almost 3 million times, Smith also learned of his risks as a black man.
Though 90% of cases are preventable, colon cancers still represent the third-leading cause of cancer deaths in the country, according to the American Cancer Society.
“People are dying and they don’t need to, if I put it simply,” Gray said. “In the statistics, buried within them, there are disparities. Some groups are more burdened than others.”
For example, African Americans have the highest colorectal cancer incidence and mortality, the American Cancer Society reports.
Gray said there are a variety of causes beyond just skin color, however, with lack of timely screening — from access problems or a mistrust issue to people’s experiences and exposures to the health-care system.
“Masculinity in itself” can be an issue, Gray said. “People can see a colonoscopy as a violation.”
Even as executive director of the African American Male Wellness Agency, Chad Anderson was still hesitant to go through a colonoscopy when he was dealing with crippling stomach pains and his doctor recommended it.
“With us, within our culture, we’re taught from a very young age to, ‘Don’t cry. Toughen up. You’re a big boy,’” said Anderson, who leads the 16-year-old local nonprofit group that seeks to raise awareness of preventable diseases.
He said hearing the success stories of others who have undergone certain medical procedures helps, especially for African American men. He got his colonoscopy in August.
“We’re a very tribal people, the black community,” the 37-year-old Near East Side resident said. “We do better in groups.”
That’s why he, too, was thrilled to see the Will Smith video released as it helps with the mission of his organization. Besides the sheer numbers of people who have watched the content, he’s seen an impact at a more local level.
“People have been talking about it in barbershops, online,” Anderson said. “Black men are talking about it. Even woman are saying, ‘I wish my husband would go get a colonoscopy.’”