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Harmon Killebrew's death spotlights rare cancer

Harmon Killebrew in his playing days with the Twins AP Photo

(CBS/AP) The death of beloved baseball great Harmon Killebrew has saddened the sports world and cast a spotlight on a rare and deadly disease.

On Tuesday, esophageal cancer claimed the life of the 74-year-old Hall of Famer, who was known as much for his friendly demeanor as for his ferocious swing. Killebrew passed away peacefully at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his family at his side, according to the Minnesota Twins, his team from 1961-1964.

The news came just days after the slugger told fans he was entering hospice.

""It is with profound sadness that I share with you that my continued battle with esophageal cancer is coming to an end," Killebrew wrote. "My illness has progressed beyond my doctors' expectation of cure."

Killebrew was diagnosed in December and had undergone treatment at the Mayo Clinic. Treatment often includes chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy.

Esophageal cancer strikes over 16,000 Americans a year and causes 14,500 deaths. The disease is notoriously hard to detect, as symptoms like difficulty swallowing, weight loss, fatigue, hoarseness, and frequent choking while eating typically occur only after the malignancy has reached an advanced stage.

Doctors aren't sure the exact cause of esophageal cancer but believe DNA mutations resulting from chronic irritation of the esophagus are likely to blame. That's why drinking alcohol, smoking, chewing tobacco, or drinking very hot liquids are considered risk factors, along with obesity and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Men between the ages of 45 and 70 are at greatest risk.

Killebrew is #11 on pro baseball's all-time home run list. His eight seasons with 40 or more homers still is tied for second in league history to Babe Ruth, and his uppercut swing formed the silhouette that inspired Major League Baseball's official logo.

"Harmon was as tough and feared a competitor on the field as the game has ever seen, while off the field he touched everyone he encountered with his sensitive and humble nature," Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said. He led his life with modesty and dignity, and I will miss him forever."

 The National Cancer Institute has more on esophageal cancer.

Watch the CBSNews.com report on Killebrew here:

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