What is colon cancer? ‘Silent killer’ that afflicted Kirstie Alley and Pele

Second-deadliest form of cancer in UK can sometimes develop without symptoms

Liam James
Wednesday 11 January 2023 08:28 GMT
Kirstie Alley, star of Cheers sitcom, dies aged 71

A pair of high-profile cases of colon cancer have raised interest in the disease sometimes referred to as a “silent killer”.

The death of American actor Kirstie Alley was attributed to the condition, known more commonly in the UK as bowel cancer, in a statement from her representatives to People.

Meanwhile, Brazilian football superstar Pele was hospitalised last week after being diagnosed with the disease last September.

One of the greatest footballers of all time, 82-year-old Pele had a tumor removed from his colon in September last year and has been receiving medical care for ailments on a regular basis.

Pele’s family recently denied reports that he was on end-of-life care due to his illness.

Bowel cancer has affected a number of famous people including Sharon Osbourne, who overcame the disease back in 2003, and former prime minister Harold Wilson, who died from it in 1995.

How many people get bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is the second most deadly form of cancer in the UK (after lung cancer) and is found in 1 in 15 men and 1 in 18 women at some point in their lifetime, according to Bowel Cancer UK, Britain’s leading charity dedicated to the disease.

Nearly 43,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year in Britain, while around 268,000 people are currently living with the disease.

Other famous people to have had bowel cancer include Sharon Osbourne, who overcame the disease back in 2003, and former prime minister Harold Wilson, who died from it in 1995.

More than nine out of ten new cases (94 per cent) are diagnosed in people over the age of 50, and nearly six out of ten cases (59 per cent) are diagnosed in people aged 70 or over.

Three-time world cup winner Pele (pictured here at Wembley in 2000) was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2021 (Getty)

However, the cancer can affect people of any age and more than 2,600 new cases are diagnosed each year in under 50s.

The cancer can be easily treated and most people survive it if diagnosed in its earliest stage – though it still kills 16,500 every year.

What are the symptoms?

Several symptoms are noted by doctors but experts warn that the cancer will not always make its presence clear, hence the “silent killer” nickname.

A spokesperson for Bowel Cancer UK says: “It’s important to remember that not everyone with bowel cancer will have one of the more common symptoms. Some people will have vague or non-specific signs, and some won’t have any symptoms at all.

“We encourage everyone to think about what’s normal for you. If you’re worried about any symptoms or if things just don’t feel right, you should visit your GP.”

Kirstie Alley, star of US sitcom ‘Cheers’, died this week aged 71 (PA)

Dame Deborah James, a British teacher and journalist, famously campaigned for greater awareness of bowel cancer signs after being diagnosed with the condition in 2016.

The NHS said record numbers of people had come forward for bowel cancer checks due to Dame Deborah’s campaigning, with referrals for checks up 60 per cent on pre-pandemic levels in the months after her death.

Dame Deborah, who died in May, also fought to reduce the stigma around bowel cancer many find embarassing due to some of the symptoms.

The three main symptoms of bowel cancer as listed by the NHS are:

  • persistent blood in your poo – that happens for no obvious reason or is associated with a change in bowel habit.
  • a persistent change in your bowel habit – which is usually having to poo more and your poo may also become more runny.
  • persistent lower abdominal (tummy) pain, bloating or discomfort – that’s always caused by eating and may be associated with loss of appetite or significant unintentional weight loss.

The NHS says to seek medical advice if you have any of the symptoms for three weeks or more.

Dame Deborah with Prince William, who travelled to her family home to honour her with a damehood (PA)

Experts are unclear on the exact cause of bowel cancer but several things are known to increase one’s risk.

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS national clinical director for cancer, says: “The risk factors of bowel cancer are well researched with age, diet, family history as well as smoking and drinking habits all found to influence the likelihood of developing the illness, but we also know that it can also occur outside of these risks and I continue to urge anyone worried about symptoms to come forward and speak to their GP.”

Prof Johnson stresses that it is vital to catch the disease before it is too late.

“Early diagnosis dramatically improves patient outcomes so help us, help you and seek advice if you are concerned,” he says.

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