FAQ: Farrah Fawcett Fights Anal Cancer
Experts Explain the Symptoms and Treatments of Anal Cancer
Who Gets Anal Cancer?
Most anal cancers are diagnosed in people who are between 50 and 80. Before age 50, anal cancer is more common in men, but after age 50 it is slightly more common in women, Saslow says.
Anal infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) is a major risk factor for the cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, 85% of anal cancers are associated with persistent infection with the sexually transmitted virus.
Although an HPV vaccine is now in use for the prevention of cervical cancer, it is not being given to prevent anal cancer.
"We have some promising data suggesting that the vaccine can prevent anal cancers, but this hasn't been proven," Saslow says.
According to both the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute, other risk factors for anal cancer include being over 50 years old, having many sexual partners, having receptive anal intercourse, having a weakened immune system, frequent anal redness and soreness, and being a smoker.
Some tumors that develop in the anus are noncancerous. Others start off as benign but develop into cancer over time.
What Are the Symptoms of Anal Cancer?
In some cases, there are no symptoms associated with anal cancer, but in about half of patients bleeding occurs and is often the first sign of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.
Because anal itching can also be a symptom of the cancer, many people initially attribute their bleeding and itching to hemorrhoids.
"Any time people have symptoms, they need to get it checked out even if they think they know what it is," Saslow says. "Anal cancer is rare, so it is not on many people's radar screens."
Other signs and symptoms of anal cancer can include:
- Pain or pressure in the anal area
- Unusual discharges from the anus
- Lump near the anus
- Change in bowel habits
How Is Anal Cancer Diagnosed?
Anal cancer can be detected during a routine digital rectal exam or during a minor procedure, such as removal of what is believed to be a hemorrhoid.
The cancer may also be found with more invasive procedures such as an anoscopy, proctoscopy, or endorectal ultrasound.
If cancer is suspected, a biopsy will be done and will be examined by a pathologist.