Cindy Ord/Getty Kirstie Alley
Kirstie Alley had colon cancer before she died Monday at the age of 71. Her diagnosis, which her family says the actress only recently discovered before her death, is shedding light on the disease and the importance of early detection.
Colon, or colorectal, cancer is the third most common cancer in the world, after lung and breast cancers. Though women are at a slightly lower risk than men, about 1 in 25 women in the United States will be diagnosed with the disease in her lifetime.
While approximately 90% of colon cancer cases occur in people over the age of 50, since the mid-90s, the number of new cases has been increasing among adults under 50 years old, according to Fight CRC — a national colorectal cancer advocacy organization that raises awareness about the importance of early detection through screening.
But people with colon cancer fare better when the disease is caught and treated early, before it spreads outside the large intestine or rectum.
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The American Cancer Society recommends that adults 45 and up get regular colon cancer screenings, either stool analyses or colonoscopies. And they urge people with symptoms of colon cancer — such as a change in bowel movements, like increased diarrhea; rectal bleeding; dark stools; unexpected weight loss; cramping and excess fatigue — to get checked out by a doctor. However, they emphasize the need for preemptive screenings, as these symptoms typically only appear after colon cancer has already spread.
While symptoms of colon cancer are typically the same among men and women, some can be easy for women to mistake as symptoms of their menstrual cycle, including abdominal cramping, lack of energy, and excess fatigue, according to Healthline. Women are urged to talk to their doctor if they experience these symptoms and they are unrelated to their cycle or if they experience these symptoms for the first time, even during their cycle.
Additionally, Fight CRC states that 25% of people diagnosed with the disease have a family history. So, anyone with a family history of colorectal cancer should begin screening 10 years before their youngest affected relative was diagnosed.
After an initial screening, a colonoscopy is likely needed every five years. Women should also note that after menopause, risk of all cancers increases.