*No spoilers here
For the one person on the planet that hasn’t seen Black Panther—Wakanda is the mythical, magical city at the center of the movie. For everyone else, unlike other think pieces, this is more of an action piece. As a gastroenterologist, I want to break down why the culture of Wakanda should encourage actions that may save your colon from cancer.
If you are questioning my Wakandan credentials, I’ve seen the movie twice (that means I’m a bona fide Wakandan scholar and I’m ready for Black Panther Jeopardy). I even wore a dashiki and an African medallion I ordered from Word Up magazine in the 80s. If you are wondering about my colon cancer qualifications, aside from being a board-certified gastroenterologist, you shouldn’t need to know more than the fact that colon cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States.
In the spirit of colon cancer awareness month, I’m going to highlight 6 reasons why colon cancer doesn’t exist in Wakanda.
1. Wakanda is in Africa (Egypt is too for that matter).
Wakandans probably deal with colon cancer less than other people partly because the overall incidence of colon cancer in Africa is low. In fact, in a year, only four out of every 100,000 people develop colon cancer in Sub-Saharan Africa. This incidence is dramatically less than the rate of colon cancer amongst African-Americans— a startling 65 out of every 100,000 people yearly.
Since African-Americans and Africans are genetic cousins, the difference in their rates of colon cancer is primarily due to diet, lifestyle, and environmental factors.
2. Wakandans embrace technology (well…most of them do).
Wakanda is the most technologically advanced city in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Truthfully, Kimoyo beads make my iPhone look like a toaster. Aside from Kimoyo beads and hovercrafts, Wakanda’s medical technology is astonishing.
The way the Wakandans embraced technology and seamlessly wove it into their culture was impressive. They seemed equally grounded in technology and tradition. If the Wakandans had a tool that could prevent colon cancer, I don’t think they would hesitate to use it.
I wish I could say the same about us in America. Ok, granted people are using apps and smartwatches. That’s cool, but many people haven’t embraced existing technology for colon cancer prevention. Regarding some of us in the Wakandan diaspora, studies show that only 56% of African-Americans utilize age-appropriate colon cancer screening.
There are a variety of reasons for this underutilization—medical mistrust is one of them. Much of the unyielding suspicion of healthcare was born out of dark, painful chapters in the history of medicine and society.
No doubt, the Wakandans benefit from never having to carry those historical burdens and their effects on views of medicine and medical research. But, colon cancer affects African-Americans at higher rates compared to other groups—not trusting the benefits of colon cancer screening might not end well.
I’m all for people ‘staying woke,’ but stay colon cancer free in the process. Don’t be afraid to get your colonoscopy if you are age 45 up (for African-Americans), have a family history of colon cancer, or have gastrointestinal symptoms that warrant a colonoscopy (i.e., blood in your stools).
3. Wakandans know their family history.
Knowledge of one’s ancestors appears to be an essential aspect of Wakandan society. T’challa’s connection to his family and ancestors was one of the movie’s major themes. The theme was so prominent, I’d imagine that Wakandans know the reasons why some of their ancestors died and their ancestor’s health issues. This knowledge could decrease the risk of colon cancer in Wakanda if it leads to early screening/prevention.
In reality, approximately 25 percent of people diagnosed with colon cancer have one or more family members who’ve had colon cancer. Having a family history of colon cancer increases the risk of developing cancer. As such, people need to know this family history to benefit from early colon cancer screening. Unfortunately, studies show that many people outside of Wakanda lack awareness of their family’s medical history. Knowledge is power and health—talk to your family about their medical problems. If you have colon cancer or large polyps, you’re not doing your family any favors by keeping it a secret.
4. Wakandans have a healthy diet (it’s probably plant-based).
The character M’baku hinted at the possibility that Wakandans commonly practice vegetarianism. This notion isn’t surprising since the diet in many parts of African is mainly plant-based and high in fiber. In fact, a study in the Lancet that ranked the quality of diet in 187 countries revealed that the diets in several African nations are among the healthiest in the world.
Eating less red meat (especially well-done, grilled meat) and consuming a diet rich in fiber may decrease the risk of colon cancer. In 2015, one study by Stephen O’keefe involved exchanging diets between African-American and rural Africans. In the study, African-Americans were fed the low-fat, fiber-rich diet of rural Africans; and the rural Africans were given a low-fiber, high-fat Western diet. The researchers found that switching diets for two weeks led to changes in markers of colon cancer risk. The changes suggested that western diet raised the risk of colon cancer in rural Africans, whereas the rural African diet decreased the risk of colon cancer in African-Americans.
Grilling every day in the summer is tasty, but it might be a colon cancer fail #ijs.
5. Wakandans exercise a lot (just look at the Dora Milaje).
It’s no secret that physical inactivity isn’t healthy. A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk for all types of conditions, including colon cancer. According to one estimate, “12-14% of colon cancer could be attributed to lack of frequent involvement in vigorous physical activity.”
A lack of exercise doesn’t seem like it’s a problem in Wakanda. Even Forest Whitaker’s eye didn’t look lazy in Wakanda (no disrespect to Mr. Whitaker). Everyone in the movie was ridiculously fit. Michael B. Jordan even had to step up his workout game to look like he belonged in there.
6. People don’t smoke cigarettes in Wakanda.
Cigarette smoking increases the risk of developing colon cancer. In fact, a 1997 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, associated 12% of colon cancer deaths in the U.S with cigarettes.
I doubt Wakandans have cigarettes as a risk factor for colon cancer since I didn’t see any of the anyone in the movie ‘lighting up.’ Could you imagine T’Challa putting down the sacred herb to puff on a black and mild? I would have ripped off my Dashiki and tweeted WTF gifs to Ryan Coogler if that happened.
Further, Wakanda developed in isolation from the influences of the outside world (tobacco isn’t native to Africa). Thus, one could assume that the Marlboro Man isn’t moseying down the streets of Wakanda. Plus, if Marvel’s Africa is anything like the real Africa, the rates of cigarette smoking should be relatively low across the entire continent.
What’s the bottom line?
- Eat fruits and veggies and eat less meat.
- Know your family history regarding colon cancer.
- Encourage your family members to have a colonoscopy if they have not had one.
- Share your colon cancer diagnosis with your first degree relatives if you’ve been diagnosed with colon cancer.
- Start colon cancer screening at age 45 if you’re African-American. Otherwise, start at age 50.
- Start colon cancer screening earlier if you have a family history of colon cancer.
- Take blood in your stools seriously—talk to your doc about having a colonoscopy.
- If your doctor doesn’t bring up colon cancer screening and you know you need it— say something (T’Challa and Killmonger wouldn’t stay silent).
- Check out my previous blog post for more information about colon cancer.
- Ladies, check out my wife’s blog if you want info about other cancers.
I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.