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How common is colon cancer? Taking a look at the silent killer

CBS Los Angeles 12/7/2022 CBSLA Staff

After actress Kirstie Alley's cause of death was revealed to be colorectal cancer on Tuesday, health officials have taken to warning the public about the silent killer, which has been the second most cause of death from cancer this year. 

Alley had just recently received the diagnosis before she died on Monday, after experiencing a number of symptoms of the disease more commonly referred to as colon cancer. 

For Melisa Ursini, Alley's story is all too familiar. After repeat trips to urgent care, in which her symptoms never seemed to improve, she was diagnosed with colon cancer at 37-years-old. 

"I always thought of it as, you got older that was a possibility because testing didn't start until you were in your 50s," Ursini said. 

On top of the constantly unpleasant bowel movements and attempts to change her diet and work out more often, she "started throwing up brown smelly stuff, which if you think about it, it's the stuff that is not supposed to come out of your mouth."

Doctors removed the tumor and a part of her colon during treatment before she went to City of Hope to receive chemotherapy. After a year of battling, she was finally pronounced cancer free.

 Doctors say that the disease starts in the colon or the rectum part of the digestive system. Many say that screening is the way to fight the cancer head on.

Colon cancer is currently the third-leading cause of death for both men and women, and recent data suggests that 1 in 23 men will be diagnosed, while 1 in 25 women are also at risk. 

According to the American Cancer Society, over 52,000 Americans will die from colon cancer by the end of 2022.

"We are seeing an increase in incidents in the younger population," said Dr. Karl Kwok with Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center. "So, in fact, our major societies have recommended it a younger age of initiating screenings."

While many doctors have now reduced the age to 45-years-old, Dr. Kwok said that the rise in cancer amongst younger patients could be for a number of reasons. 

"Lifestyle. We do eat more and more processed foods," he said. "Some of the risk may come from having a not-so-active lifestyle."

He said as soon as you experience the onset of any symptoms, the best step is to get a colonoscopy. 

"If you feel you have any symptoms, be that advocate for yourself."

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