Kirstie Alley: The Early Signs of Colon Cancer You Need to Know About

Kirstie Alley's colon cancer diagnosis came late and did not give her time to face an adequate approach to her disease.
Kirstie Alley: The Early Signs of Colon Cancer You Need to Know About
Leonardo Biolatto

Written and verified by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Last update: 09 January, 2023

American actress Kirstie Alley passed away from colon cancer that she was recently diagnosed with. Her case shocked the entertainment world because of the suddenness of the news.

This also brings up the question of how we can detect early signs of the disease. Considering that we’re dealing with one of the most common causes of cancer-related deaths in the world, the public’s concern is well-founded.

Statistical data have even led the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) to move up the recommended age to begin screening for colorectal cancer. The cutoff has been lowered from 50 to 45.

Why was the colon cancer screening age moved up?

Kirstie Alley died at age 71 of colon cancer without much time for appropriate treatment. Although her age was within the highest risk group, it should be noted that cases among younger people have increased recently.

This timely fact led to the advancement of the screening age. In the United States, almost 53.000 people died from this disease in 2021. Thus, the disease is positioned as the third leading cause of death in men and women.

Most of the deaths occurred in people between 65 and 74 years of age.

However, the significant fact is that more than 10% of the new cases detected occurred in people under 50 years of age. Statistically speaking, colon cancer increased by 15% among adults aged 40 to 49 years.

The USPSTF made the decision that those over 45 years of age should start screening, without waiting until age 50 for the first test.

a colonoscopy
A colonoscopy is one of the recommended methods for colorectal cancer screening.

How to catch the disease early

Early suspicion of colon cancer is not easy to arrive at. Many of its symptoms are general and are even confused with banal conditions. They are often overlooked.

Kirstie Alley’s colon cancer brought the dramatic situation of those patients who are detected late to the news. This reduces a person’s survival rate.

According to a 2021 report, half of these cancers are detected when the person has obvious symptoms. This translates into an advanced tumor, but also possible metastases. Those who are diagnosed in the early stages have a cure rate of almost 90% with surgery alone, which presents the need for chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

So, clearly, early detection is the way to go. However, in order to consult, we must first suspect that something is wrong. And for that, the following symptoms can guide us.

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Changes in bowel habits

If you’re a person with a tendency to chronic constipation and, suddenly, you start to have diarrhea for several days, you should be suspicious. The same if it happens the other way around.

These changes must be persistent to signal risk. However, it’s not usually an acute change, as is the case with infectious diarrhea. A dietary origin must also be ruled out.

Bleeding with stool

Blood output when defecating should always alert us to a health problem. Although most often it has a benign cause, such as hemorrhoids or anal fissures, its persistence warrants examination.

The blood may appear as a red trickle. This denotes fresh, recent bleeding, possibly from the lower bowel.

Conversely, dark blood mixed with stool comes from the upper bowel. It has traveled through the digestive tract and has undergone changes in its composition, so it is not seen as red.

There is also occult blood in the stool. This is only detected when the stool is analyzed under the microscope. The patient does not see it, but it is diagnosed at the doctor’s request.

The sensation of not having defecated enough

It may happen that you feel that you have not evacuated the entire bowel, despite having gone to the bathroom several times. Although this is a subjective sign, it’s usually associated with colon cancer.

This occurs because the mobility of the digestive tract is altered with the neoplasm and because there are obstructions in the path of the lumen of the rectum. Then, since the stool doesn’t come out completely, you recognize that you would go to the bathroom again, even though you’ve just gone.

Colon cancer and constipation
Feeling like you haven’t defecated enough each time you go to the bathroom is a sign of alarm.

Unexplained weight loss

Losing weight without any explanation is always a cause for suspicion. It may indicate a chronic infectious disease (such as tuberculosis), a systemic syndrome (such as AIDS), or a neoplasm (such as colon cancer).

Dieting, changes in habits, and increased physical activity should be ruled out. If none of these appear to be new in our life and, even so, we lose kilos, we should consult a doctor.

Weight loss due to cancer has several explanations. There are metabolic changes that accelerate calorie consumption. However, in digestive tumors, there are also local processes that prevent the correct absorption of nutrients.

Kirstie Alley died of colon cancer that was not detected in time

The news of the colon cancer that Kirstie Alley was unable to successfully fight should remind us of the importance of early diagnosis. There are several tests available that a physician will order when a patient comes to the office.

Fecal occult blood, stool DNA testing, a traditional colonoscopy, and a virtual colonoscopy are all tools to improve prognosis. However, first we must pay attention to our body and the signals it may send us.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Alvarez-Escobar, Belkis, et al. “Sobrevida en adultos mayores con cáncer colorrectal: una revisión bibliográfica.” Revista Archivo Médico de Camagüey 25.1 (2021).
  • Low, Eric E., et al. “Risk factors for early-onset colorectal cancer.” Gastroenterology 159.2 (2020): 492-501.
  • Siegel, Rebecca L., et al. “Colorectal cancer statistics, 2020.” CA: a cancer journal for clinicians 70.3 (2020): 145-164.
  • US Preventive Services Task Force, Davidson KW, Barry MJ, Mangione CM, Cabana M, Caughey AB, Davis EM, Donahue KE, Doubeni CA, Krist AH, Kubik M, Li L, Ogedegbe G, Owens DK, Pbert L, Silverstein M, Stevermer J, Tseng CW, Wong JB. Screening for Colorectal Cancer: US Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement. JAMA. 2021 May 18;325(19):1965-1977. doi: 10.1001/jama.2021.6238. Erratum in: JAMA. 2021 Aug 24;326(8):773. PMID: 34003218.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.