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Kirstie Alley Has Died of Colon Cancer, and Here are the Symptoms to Watch For

The Cheers star has died at the age of 71 of colon cancer and experts share what to know about the disease and signs to watch out for.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Actress Kirstie Alley has died at age 71. The star known for her TV and films roles in classics like Cheers, Veronica's Closet, and Look Who's Talking, had a "brief battle" with cancer, according to a statement her children True and Lillie Parker posted on social media. "She was surrounded by her closest family and fought with great strength, leaving us with a certainty of her never-ending joy of living and whatever adventures lie ahead," the family's statement continued. "As iconic as she was on screen, she was an even more amazing mother and grandmother."

Alley's children added, "Our mother's zest and passion for life, her children, grandchildren and her many animals, not to mention her eternal joy of creating, were unparalleled and leave us inspired to live life to the fullest just as she did," the statement said. A rep for the actress confirmed to PEOPLE she had colon cancer prior to her death. "Kirstie Alley had colon cancer prior to her death on Monday at age 71."

Colon cancer affects both men and women, but there's a misbelief that colon cancer typically affects men. Dr. Angela Nicholas, Primary Care Physician, Chief Medical Officer of Einstein Physicians Montgomery tells us, "There is a perception around colon cancer that it impacts more men than women; however, it's equal. It's the third leading cause of cancer death for both men and women. Women need to prioritize their health and stay on top of their routine screenings." Dr. Nicholas adds, "I also believe when women think of cancer, we typically immediately go to breast cancer – as an industry we've done an incredible job of building awareness and education to encourage breast cancer screenings. We've built the brand for breast cancer. Now we need to do the same with colon cancer." 

Early detection is vital for a higher chance and survivor and knowing the warning signs can be life-saving. Dr. Nicholas explains, "Recent data is showing that during the first year of the pandemic, average rates for colorectal cancer screenings fell by 45% in 2020. Unfortunately, this means we will see people diagnosed at later stages of the disease when it is less treatable. When found early, patients with colon cancer have a better chance of overcoming the disease."  Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with doctors who have not treated Alley, but explained what to know about colon cancer and symptoms to watch out for. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What to Know About Colon Cancer

doctor patient closeup fatty liver disease

Dr. Antonio Ucar, oncologist/hematologist at Miami Cancer Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida says, "Colorectal cancer is the third most common cause of cancer death in the United States in women and the second leading cause of death in men. Approximately 150,000 new cases of large bowel cancer are diagnosed annually in the United States of which approximately 106,000 arise from the colon and the remainder from the rectum. The mortality of colorectal cancer has been progressively declining since 1990."

Suhail Salem, MD Gastroenterologist with Dignity Health Northridge Hospital says, "Colon cancer is a life threatening malignant tumor of the large intestine, which left unchecked, can lead to intestinal blockage or spread to other organs. It is the 4th most common cancer in the United States and more than 4% of people, in their lifetime, will develop colon cancer. Although it is one of the most common life threatening cancers in the world, it is largely preventable with modern tools, such as colonoscopy and stool testing." 

Ronald Tang, DO Board certified Hematologist/Oncologist with the Los Angeles Cancer Network Beverly Hospital, tells us, "Colon cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed and is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.  The most important thing about colon cancer is that early stage colon cancer is curable and that colon cancer unlike other cancers is preventable.  It is preventable through screening colonoscopy that should be initiated between the age of 45-50.  Colon cancer unlike other aggressive cancers takes time to develop as it starts out as a benign polyp and takes months to years to turn into cancer.  Therefore during a screening colonoscopy, the gastroenterologist can remove pre-cancerous polyps and can basically prevent colon cancer from ever developing."


Signs of Colon Cancer


Afshin Safa, MD, FACR Medical Director of Radiation Oncology at Leavey Cancer Center with Dignity Health Northridge Hospital and Associate Professor, Department of Radiation Oncology David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA tells us, "Over 86 percent of those diagnosed under the age of 50 are symptomatic at diagnosis, and this is associated with more advanced stages at diagnosis and poorer outcomes. Unfortunately, Most CRCs are diagnosed after the onset of symptoms.  These symptoms include  rectal bleeding, pelvis pain,  unexplained iron deficiency anemia,  or a change in bowel habits. Occult bleeding is more common with Right sided colon cancer, whereas frank red bleeding is more likely with rectal cancer. One in five patients presents  with metastatic disease, with the most common sites  include  lymph nodes, liver, lungs, and peritoneum." 

Dr. Tang says, "Common signs of colon cancer include constant abdominal pain that intensifies and does not go away within 3-5 days, black-tarry stools or bright red blood stools, unintentional weight loss, constipation, diarrhea, appetite loss and fevers. Jaundice or yellowing of the skin can occur as well. Key takeaway: colon cancer is preventable with screening colonoscopy and highly curable. High fiber diets along with a low red meat intake are key lifestyle changes that will lower the risk of colon cancer." 

Dr. Ucar adds, "Signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer include change in bowel habits, rectal bleeding, rectal mass or abdominal mass, iron deficiency anemia, abdominal distension and abdominal pain. Colorectal cancer is diagnosed after the onset of symptoms, through screening colonoscopy or through tests that detect occult blood in the stools (fecal immunochemical test or guaiac fecal test). Screening colonoscopy starting at age 45 is a very useful tool to diagnose and remove adenomatous polyps which are precancerous or to detect early stage colon cancers. A healthy lifestyle by increasing physical activity and avoiding processed meats and refined sugars in the diet can contribute to lower the risk of colorectal cancer."


Testing for Colon Cancer

Gastrologist. Doctor's office. Doctor gastroenterologist with probe to perform gastroscopy and colonoscopy

Dr. Nicholas shares, "Cancer screenings are very accurate, and for colon cancer they can be accomplished several ways – by a colonoscopy or by a noninvasive at home screening test (like Cologuard which finds 94% of stage I and stage II colon cancers) for those who are at average risk for colorectal cancer. So, I think patients should talk with their doctor about their risk to determine if they require a colonoscopy or can proceed with another method. However, I encourage everyone to get screened – no matter what – if you are between the ages of 45-75."

Dr. Safa says, "There is no diagnostic role for routine laboratory testing. The most versatile test in symptomatic persons is colonoscopy, CT colonography ( CT scan of abdomen and pelvis) is a non-invasive  alternative to colonoscopy ,   which provides a similarly sensitive but less invasive. However, colonoscopy is preferred as it permits removal/biopsy of the lesion and any other cancers or polyps that are seen during the same procedure."


Colon Cancer is Treatable

Dr. Ucar shares, "Colorectal cancer is potentially curable especially when diagnosed at early stages. Curative treatments include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. Nowadays, even patients with advanced disease can be cured through the use of a multispecialty approach which can combine some or most of the treatment options available. For patients that cannot be cured, available treatments can prolong survival while trying to maintain the best quality of life possible."

Dr. Tang says, "Colon cancer is treatable and curable if found early, especially in stage I to stage III categorization.  It is usually treated with a hemicolectomy which is removal of the cancer along with a small part of the normal colon.  Chemotherapy is only used for stage III and stage IV colon cancer.  The key thing to remember is screening colonoscopies save lives because the procedure removes precancerous polyps from turning into cancer.  There has been a consistent drop of 1% per year since 2013 of deaths related to colon cancer due to screening." 

Dr. Salem explains, "In addition to being preventable, colon cancer is one of the most treatable cancers, however, for the best chance of cure, it must be caught at the earliest stage. If colon cancer is caught at its earliest stage, then cure rates are over 90%. However, if the cancer has already spread to other organs, the survival rate can fall to as low as 15%. By participating in screening and prevention for colon cancer, you can either prevent colon cancer, or at least if it does develop, catch it at the earliest possible stage, where it can still be cured."

According to Dr. Safa, "60 to 90% of colorectal cancer related deaths are believed to be preventable with screening. Most types of colorectal cancer are treated with Surgery to remove the part of the colon or rectum that has cancer; then depending on the extent of cancer, Chemotherapy or immunotherapy  may be indicated , which are the medicines that kill cancer cells or stop them from growing.  For rectal cancers, radiation therapy is often indicated to avoid colostomy bags and improve survival. Colon surgery is often misunderstood and feared.  If your doctor can reconnect your colon or rectum after removing the part with cancer, you should be able to have bowel movements normally. But if your doctor cannot reconnect your colon or rectum, they will make a hole in your belly and attach the end of the colon or a loop of intestine to that hole. The hole is called a "colostomy"  depending on which part of the intestine was affected. Your bowel movements will come out through the opening into a bag that is glued to your skin, " colostomy bag" . Some people need to have a colostomy or ileostomy only for a short time. Later on , they have  another surgery to reconnect their colon or rectum. Depending on the location of the cancer, some may need to have a colostomy for the rest of their life. This is called a "permanent colostomy."


Why More Younger People are Getting Colon Cancer

Woman holding model of human intestines in front of body.

Dr. Ucar explains, "The incidence of colorectal cancer has been steadily increasing in men and women under the age of 50 since 1990. The increases are predominantly related to left sided cancers and rectal cancer in particular. It is still unclear exactly why colorectal cancer rates are increasing in younger adults but suspected factors include obesity, eating an unhealthy diet (high fat and sugary foods and beverages), low levels of physical activity, changes in the gut bacteria (microbiome) and inflammation in the gut."

According to Dr. Salem, "Although the reasons for this are complex and not fully understood yet, we suspect that the main driver for this is an increasingly unhealthy lifestyle. A diet with large amounts of processed meat and fat, while lacking in fruits and vegetables, has been linked to colon cancer. An unhealthy diet, in combination with a more sedentary lifestyle, has led to rising rates of obesity, at younger ages, which is another risk factor for colon cancer. Smoking and excessive alcohol intake have also been linked to colon cancer." 

Dr. Safa explains, "Large bowel cancer is uncommon before the age of 40; the incidence begins to increase significantly between the ages of 40 and 50,

Although the death rates are declining in men and women above 50, the rate in men and women below age 50 is increasing. These are mainly  in the left colon and rectum.  The reason for this is multifactorial. These include genetic factors such as hereditary  CRC syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease  . Other factors include  changes in environmental and lifestyle exposures such as obesity and alcohol and hyperlipidemia (diet high in  animal fat) increases risk of CRC. In contrast ,  regular physical activity, either occupational or leisure time, is associated with significant protection from CRC. In addition, a high fiber diet,  i.e.,  a diet high in fruits and vegetables,  protects  from CRC."

Dr. Tang says, "The jury is still out on the true reason why younger people are getting colon cancer however risk factors including sedentary lifestyle, overweight and obesity, smoking, heavy alcohol use, low-fiber, high-fat diets or diets high in processed meats are contributory.  Young individuals who have a family history of colon cancer should be screened earlier. Young individuals who have inflammatory bowel conditions such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease have an increased risk of developing colon cancer at a young age as well." 


Misconceptions of Colon Cancer


Dr. Salem states, "The most common misconception about colon cancer that I see and hear from patients is that if you feel fine, there is no need to have a colonoscopy. However, the important thing to understand is that if colon cancer is already causing symptoms, then it is far less likely to be curable. In order to prevent colon cancer or catch it at the earliest stage, we have to check before it causes symptoms. The best way to achieve this is with colonoscopy. During a colonoscopy, we are able to identify colon cancer before they cause symptoms, but also we are able to identify the precursors to colon cancer, which are polyps, and remove them at the time of the colonoscopy to prevent colon cancer altogether. "

Dr. Safa tells us, "There is a misconception that colonoscopy is painful and difficult. — with proper anesthesia it can be comfortable. The prep for colonoscopy can be challenging but talk to your doctor for alternatives.  Because the procedure usually requires sedation, you must be accompanied home after the procedure and you should not return to work or other activities on the same day. Take the day off, that day may save your life! In addition, stool tests can detect blood or abnormal DNA markers. Although these tests involve collecting stool samples at home, they require a prescription from a doctor. If a stool test is positive, your entire colon should be examined with colonoscopy. Colonoscopy detects polyps which are an early form of cancers. If a polyp is found on colonoscopy then it is removed to try to prevent it from becoming aggressive cancers. Regular screening  and  removal of polyps reduces your risk of developing colorectal cancer (by up to 90 percent!!).   If a cancer is found, it may be treated, usually at an earlier stage which is usually very curable. . Early detection saves lives!  Removal of early cancer or precancers that  are already present in the colon increases the chance of successful treatment and decreases the chance of dying as a result of the cancer."

According to Dr. Tang, "Misconceptions for colon cancer are that only older individuals can develop this cancer which is untrue as the screening age has decreased from 50 to 45.  Colon cancer is highly preventable and the screening colonoscopy can prevent colon cancer from occurring.  Colon cancer is not a death sentence if found early and a majority of patients can be cured. Another misconception is that a colonoscopy is a painful and difficult procedure to undergo.  In reality, the procedure is not difficult and takes less than an hour and light sedation usually minimizes any discomfort."

Dr. Ucar says the following are misconceptions of colon cancer:

  1. "Screening colonoscopy or tests for occult blood in stools are not required unless the person has symptoms: Colorectal cancer can be asymptomatic especially in early stages.
  2. Colon cancer does not appear before age 50: The incidence of colorectal cancer is increasing in persons younger than 50.
  3. Colonoscopy is painful and the preparation is very cumbersome: The procedure is not painful and there are more convenient ways to clean the bowel prior to colonoscopy.
  4. Colorectal cancer is uncommon in women: It is more common in men but not by much.
  5. Colonoscopy is the only screening procedure: Options include tests for occult blood in stools and Cologuard."
Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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