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Actress Kirstie Alley is the latest to die from colon cancer: Are you at risk?

kirstie alley
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Actress Kirstie Alley, best known for her role on “Cheers,” died Monday at age 71. The family posted on her Twitter account that she had passed away “after a battle with cancer, only recently discovered.”

According to online reports, the actress had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Congressman Donald McEachin, Broadway actor Quentin Lee and actor Chadwick Boseman also died recently of colon or colorectal cancer.

With so many famous people dying of this disease, it may have you wondering if you are at risk for colon cancer. Below we explore when you should get screened, symptoms and how food may factor into your risk.

What age should you get screened for colorectal, or colon cancer?

Colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death, according to the National Cancer Institute. An estimated 52,580 people will die from colorectal cancer in 2022.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated their recommendations in 2021 to suggest that adults aged 45 to 49 should be screened for colorectal cancer to reduce their risk of dying from this disease.

If colorectal polyps are detected early, they may be removed before they develop into cancer. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, there are usually few, if any symptoms of colon cancer, which is why doctors recommend regular screening tests.

According to the USPSTF, age is a risk factor with incidence rates increasing with age and nearly 94 percent of new cases occurring in adults 45 years or older.

According to the recommendation report, an age analysis found “a recent trend for increasing risk of colorectal cancer in birth cohorts of adults younger than 50 years.”

With the recommendation, colorectal cancer screening services for 45- to 75-year-olds should be covered by most private insurance plans, with no copay.

“Far too many people in the U.S. are not receiving this lifesaving preventive service,” said Task Force vice chair Michael Barry, M.D. “We hope that this new recommendation to screen people ages 45 to 49, coupled with our long-standing recommendation to screen people 50 to 75, will prevent more people from dying from colorectal cancer.”

The task force also found that Black adults are more likely to die from colorectal cancer than people of other races and ethnicities.

The task force recommends:

  • High-sensitivity gFOBT or FIT every yar
  • sDNA-FIT every 1 to 3 years
  • CT colongraphy every 5 years
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 10 years + FIT every year
  • Colonoscopy screening every 10 years

It’s not clear why there has been an increase in cases in younger age groups, but data shows cases among adults aged 40 to 49 years old has increased almost 15 percent from 2002 to 2016.

The task force is an independent, volunteer panel of national experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine that works to improve the health of people nationwide by making evidence-based recommendations about clinical preventive services such as screenings, counseling services and preventive medications.

Signs and symptoms

According to the Mayo Clinic, there may be no symptoms in the early stages of the disease.

Some of the signs and symptoms may include:

  • A persistent change in your bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation, or change of consistency of your stool
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool
  • Persistent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas or pain
  • A feeling that your bowel doesn’t empty completely
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

Obesity, ultra-processed foods linked to colorectal cancer

In a study published in August, researchers found that men who consumed high rates of ultra-processed foods were at a 29 percent higher risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Packaged snacks, factory-made breads, soft drinks, breakfast cereals and other ready-to-eat items are considered ultra-processed.

“We started out thinking that colorectal cancer could be the cancer most impacted by diet compared to other cancer types,” said Lu Wang, the study’s lead author. “Processed meats, most of which fall into the category of ultra-processed foods, are a strong risk factor for colorectal cancer. Ultra-processed foods are also high in added sugars and low in fiber, which contribute to weight gain and obesity, and obesity is an established risk factor for colorectal cancer.”

The team found the strongest association between colorectal cancer and ultra-processed foods among men come from the meat, poultry, or fish-based, ready-to-eat products.

“These products include some processed meats like sausages, bacon, ham, and fish cakes,” Wang said.

The team also found higher consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda, fruit-based beverages, and sugary milk-based beverages, is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer in men.

Five tips for reducing your risk of colon cancer

According to the Mayo Clinic, you can take steps to reduce your risk of colon cancer.

  1. Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants, which may play a role in cancer prevention. Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables so that you get an array of vitamins and nutrients.
  2. Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. If you choose to drink alcohol, limit the amount of alcohol you drink to no more than one drink a day for women and two for men.
  3. Stop smoking. Talk to your doctor about ways to quit that may work for you.
  4. Exercise most days of the week. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days. If you’ve been inactive, start slowly and build up gradually to 30 minutes.
  5. Maintain a healthy weight. If you are at a healthy weight, work to maintain your weight by combining a healthy diet with daily exercise. If you need to lose weight, ask your doctor about healthy ways to achieve your goal. Aim to lose weight slowly by increasing the amount of exercise you get and reducing the number of calories you eat.

If you have an increased risk of colon cancer, the Mayo Clinic said to discuss your risk factors with your doctor to determine whether preventive medications are safe for you.

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.