Anal Cancer

What is anal cancer?

Anal cancer is a cancer that arises from the anus, the opening at the end of the rectum. The rectum is the final portion of the large intestine that stores stool until it leaves the body through the anus. This condition is uncommon, and tends to affect older adults. Early symptoms of anal cancer include bleeding or itching around the anus, a lump in or near the anus, and anal pain. Anal cancer spreads slowly and with early treatment, it has a relatively good prognosis.

Risks

The causes of anal cancer are not well understood. It is strongly associated with infection with the wart virus, the human papillomavirus (HPV). Other risk factors include a weakened immune system, unsafe sexual activities, and smoking. Women who have been diagnosed with cervical, vulvar or vaginal cancer may be at higher risk of developing anal cancer. This condition is equally common in men and women, and is more common in older adults.

Symptoms

Early symptoms of anal cancer include bleeding from around the anus, a lump in or near the anus, anal itching and discharge from the anus. Other symptoms may include anal pain, a change in bowel habits, and swollen lymph nodes in the groin and anal region.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis is usually made by examining the area and undergoing a digital rectal exam, where a doctor gently feels the inside of the anus for any lumps. This test is often useful in detecting early cancer. Other tests that may be helpful are endoscopy (flexible camera) of the anus and rectum and ultrasound of the anal region. A small sample (a biopsy) of any growths will be taken and tested to see if cancer is present. If any of these tests are positive for cancer, further investigation is done to confirm the staging of the cancer.

Treatment

The treatment of anal cancer depends on the size of the cancer, the exact type of cancer and whether the cancer has spread. The combination of these factors decides the stage of the cancer. Depending on the stage, anal cancer can be treated by radiotherapy, surgery and chemotherapy or a combination of therapies. The treating doctor can give the best advice as to treatment.

Prevention

Practicing safe sex can help to prevent some cases of anal cancer. Quitting smoking may also be helpful. Vaccination against the human papillomavirus may prevent some cases of anal cancer, if a person has never had the virus before. Having routine digital rectal exams can help detect anal cancer before symptoms occur.