Colon cancer: the ‘silent killer’ that claimed the life of Kirstie Alley and 53k more this year

Sitcom legend Kirstie Alley passed away this week from a hard-to-recognize cancer called a “silent killer.”

Her family revealed that the actress, 71, was recently diagnosed with colon cancer – a disease that affects one in 20 Americans.

If caught early, more than 90 percent of Americans survive the disease. But it often grows and spreads with mild symptoms that easily progress to other less sinister ailments — such as stomach cramps, weight loss, change in toilet habits, or bloating.

Unfortunately, only about a third of all colorectal cancers are diagnosed at this early stage. Most colon cancers are not noticed until they have spread

beyond the wall of the colon or rectum or to distant parts of the body, where it becomes difficult to treat.

Ms Alley, 71, died of colorectal cancer and was only recently diagnosed, suggesting the disease had progressed at a late stage

Colorectal Cancer Is A Type Of Cancer That Begins In The Colon

It Usually Starts As Small, Noncancerous (Benign) Clumps Of Cells Called Polyps That Form On The Lining Of The Colon And Can Become Colon Cancer Over Time

About one in 20 Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer in their lifetime

Overall, Death Rates And New Cases Of Colon Cancer In The Us Are On A Downward Trend, According To Federal Data

Overall, death rates and new cases of colon cancer in the US are on a downward trend, according to federal data

Seniors Aged 55 To 75 Are At The Highest Risk Of Developing Colorectal Cancer

Seniors aged 55 to 75 are at the highest risk of developing colorectal cancer

Colorectal Cancer Has A High Survival Rate If Detected Early

Colorectal cancer has a high survival rate if detected early

Colorectal Cancer Is The Fourth Most Common Cancer In The Us After Skin, Breast And Lung Cancer

Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the US after skin, breast and lung cancer

According to her representatives, Alley underwent treatment at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, near her home in Clearwater, Florida.

If you catch it early through routine screening, the chances of surviving colorectal cancer are high. Usually, the cancerous tumor can be surgically removed at an early stage.

But in later stages of the disease, when the cancer cells have spread, doctors must take other routes, such as chemotherapy and radiation, to kill them.

There are more than 106,000 new cases of colorectal cancer in the US each year, making it the fourth most common after skin, breast and lung cancer.

That means about one in 20 Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer in their lifetime, though the risk is slightly higher for men.

Nearly 53,000 Americans have died of colorectal cancer this year, giving it a five-year survival rate of 64 percent.

Colon cancer almost always develops from precancerous polyps, or abnormal growths, in the colon or rectum.

Screening tests such as colonoscapies can detect those polyps, greatly increasing survival rates. Doctors can then remove those cancerous polyps on the spot.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises Americans to start when they turn 45. But according to the CDC, three in 10 adults ages 50 to 75 are behind on their screening, meaning they may have undiagnosed problems.

Colonoscopies, or the procedure in which a lighted tube called a colonoscope is inserted into the rectum and entire colon to look for polyps or cancer, is one of the most common screening tools. You must retake the exam every 10 years.

Doctors may also use stool DNA tests to screen for cancer cells, tests to detect blood in the stool, and imaging tests that use X-rays and computers to produce images of the entire colon.

Although colorectal cancer is relatively common, serious consequences, including death, can be prevented with routine screenings. More than 92 percent of patients with stage one colon cancer live for at least five more years.

The survival rate plummets once the cancer has spread to surrounding tissues or organs. If the cancer has spread to more distant parts of the body, the survival rate is a dismal 17 percent.


Colon or colorectal cancer affects the colon, which consists of the colon and rectum.

Such tumors usually develop from cancer precursors called polyps.

Symptoms include:

  • Bleeding from below
  • Blood in stool
  • A change in bowel habits that lasts for at least three weeks
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme, unexplained fatigue
  • Stomach ache

Most cases have no clear cause, but people are more at risk if they:

  • Are over 50
  • Have a family history of the condition
  • Have a personal history of polyps in their gut
  • Suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease
  • Lead an unhealthy lifestyle

Treatment usually includes surgery and chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

More than nine in ten people with stage 1 colon cancer survive five years or more after their diagnosis.

Unfortunately, only about a third of all colorectal cancers are diagnosed at this early stage.

The majority of people come to the doctor when the disease has spread beyond the wall of the colon or rectum or to distant parts of the body, decreasing the chances of successfully curing colon cancer.

According to figures from Bowel Cancer UK, more than 41,200 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year in the UK.

It affects about 40 per 100,000 adults each year in the US, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Age is an important risk factor for colon cancer. For colon cancer, the average age at diagnosis is 68 for men and 72 for women, just a year older than Ms. Alley was at the time of her death.

Black people generally have higher rates of colorectal cancer. It is one of the leading causes of death among black people, and black women are more likely to die from colorectal cancer than women of any other racial group.

There is also a genetic component to colorectal cancer. Someone with a family history of colorectal cancer has a double chance of being diagnosed themselves. The risk increases further if other close relatives have also developed colorectal cancer or if a close relative has been diagnosed at a younger age.

People who smoke and drink heavily, as well as obese people, are also at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Treatment usually involves surgically removing the tumor, but not necessarily if the cancer has spread to larger areas of the body.

Chemotherapy for colon cancer is usually given after surgery if the cancer is larger or has spread beyond a localized area to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body. It is also used to shrink a tumor before it is surgically removed.

Radiation therapy, which uses X-rays to destroy cancer cells, is generally used in conjunction with chemo once the cancer has spread beyond the wall of the rectum to the lymph nodes.

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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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