A research study by the LSU Health New Orleans School of Public Health indicated that white men in Louisiana parishes where French is commonly spoken have disproportionately high rates of colorectal cancer.

Dr. Jordan Karlitz, assistant clinical professor at Tulane School of Medicine and an adjunct at LSU School of Public Health, said the team of researchers conducted the study after hearing anecdotal stories from physicians who believed that colorectal cancers were more common in Acadiana than elsewhere.

Acadiana has a strong Cajun population. The Cajuns migrated in the 1700s from France to Canada, then to Louisiana’s Acadian parishes. This makes Louisiana Cajuns a “founder population.” A founder population is a small group that breaks off from a larger one, as the Cajuns did when they came to Louisiana. When this happens, there is less genetic variation, which leads to an increased risk of certain types of cancers. Colon cancer, like breast cancer, is a disease that has been proven to sometimes have a genetic or hereditary component.  

In the study, published in Clinical and Translational Gastroenterology in July 2014, nine parishes with high concentrations of French speakers (Acadia, Assumption, Avoyelles, Evangeline, Jefferson Davis, Lafourche, St. Landry, St. Martin, and Vermillion) saw an incidence of 56.1 colorectal cancer cases per 100,000 white residents. This rate is 13 percent higher than Louisiana’s rates and 23 percent higher than rates across the United States. In white men, the incidence in increased to 72.6 per 100,000 – 19 percent higher than Louisiana and 37 percent higher than the US rates.  

Dr. Karlitz emphasized that this data is not reason for people in Acadiana to panic. The study was population-based and did not interview individuals in detail about their ethnic heritage. Further studies are needed to interview individual cancer patients and study tumors for genetic components.

“This is going to be the first of hopefully multiple studies,” Karlitz said.  

For his next study, Karlitz is currently seeking funding to genetically analyze tumors to search for hereditary links in the disease.
The doctor added that while colorectal cancer rates in blacks in Acadiana are not as disproportionately high as the numbers for whites, their rates are still high and blacks should still exercise caution.

Colorectal cancers are not one-size-fits-all. What applies to one person may not apply to another. Dr. Kartliz said this is why patients need to overcome any embarrassment about discussing colorectal issues and speak to their physicians sooner rather than later to formulate an individualized prevention plan.

“Each patient is different and has different risk factors and needs to discuss with their physician when they should be screened,” Karlitz said.

Early warning signs include (but are not limited to) blood in the stool, changes in bowel habits, and anemia. However, many patients are asymptomatic, which is why it’s important to be screened via a colonoscopy. The general recommended age for people without symptoms or any family history or other risk factors is 50.