Colon Cancer, Which Killed Kirstie Alley, Is on the Rise Among Young People

Eric McCandless/ABC via Getty
Eric McCandless/ABC via Getty

Before her death at the age of 71 on Monday, beloved actress Kirstie Alley had been diagnosed with colon cancer. In a statement announcing the Cheers star’s passing, Alley’s children said the cancer was “only recently discovered.”

Alley’s death is one of the thousands that experts say the disease will tragically cause in 2022—with data from recent years showing that the cancer is now becoming a growing menace among the young.

‘Cheers’ Star Kirstie Alley’s Cause of Death Revealed

In the U.S., colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed type of cancer when taken together with incidences of rectal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Both cancers affect the large intestine—part of the digestive system—and are often grouped together in medical literature as “colorectal cancer.” Growths on the lining of the colon or rectum called polyps can become cancerous. If cancer cells develop in the colon, the patient is diagnosed with colon cancer and similarly they are diagnosed with rectal cancer if the cancer cells are detected in the rectum.

Patients with polyps or colorectal cancer don’t always have symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making regular screening important. But typical symptoms can include blood in bowel movements, abdominal pain, and weight loss.

Since the mid-1980s, diagnoses of colorectal cancer have plummeted largely thanks to increased screening and widespread changes in lifestyle that increase the risk of colorectal cancer like smoking. Between 2013 and 2017, the incidence rate of colorectal cancer in older adults in the U.S. dropped by around 1 percent each year.

But since the mid-1990s, the incidence of colorectal cancer among young people in the U.S. has been rising. Between 2012 and 2016, it rose by 2 percent every year in people under the age of 50 and 1 percent in those aged between 50 and 64.

It’s not exactly clear why this is happening. But the trend is in part concerning given the number of deaths related to the disease. When the figures for men and women are combined, colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths in America.

In 2022 alone, the American Cancer Society estimates that colorectal cancer will cause around 52,580 deaths. Just as with diagnoses, data trends for colorectal deaths show a divide between young and older adults. The overall death rate has been declining for decades, yet the death rate for people younger than 55 increased by 1 percent each year between 2008 and 2017.

It’s hoped that improved early detection methods like blood tests and genetic screenings, combined with advances in surgical and therapeutic treatments will continue to bring the death rate down.

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