Advanced Breast Cancer: Learn about treatment options.
Harvard Health Publications

Anal Cancer

What Is It?

Anal cancer is an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the anus. The anus is the end of the large intestine, through which solid waste leaves the body. The treatments for anal cancer and rectal cancer can differ. Doctors need to know the exact location and the specific type of cell that has become cancerous in order to choose the right treatment.

The body stores digestive waste (feces) in the rectum, the lower part of the large intestine. The feces travel through the anal canal, a short tube that connects the rectum to the anal opening where they are passed as a bowel movement.

Several types of cells line the anal canal. Anal glands, which lie underneath the lining, lubricate the anal canal to ease bowel movements.

Several types of tumors can form in the anus. These include noncancerous tumors and cancerous tumors that can spread to other parts of the body. Some noncancerous growths can turn cancerous over time.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for anal cancer include:

  • Infection with the human papillomavirus virus (HPV). HPV causes wart-like growths around the anus. The subtype HPV-16 has a particularly strong connection to anal cancer risk. However, most people with HPV do not develop anal cancer.

  • Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This is the virus that causes AIDS.

  • Prior history of cervical, vaginal or vulvar cancer

  • Multiple sexual partners

  • Anal intercourse

  • Frequent anal redness, swelling, and soreness

  • Abnormal anal openings (fistulas)

  • Weakened immune system

  • Prolonged use of steroid medicines, especially for patients who have had an organ transplant.

  • Smoking

Some people who develop anal cancer have no known risk factors.

Symptoms

  • Bleeding from the anus or rectum (can be minor)

  • Itching in the anal area

  • Pain in the anal area

  • Abnormal discharge from the anus

  • Change in size of bowel movements (stool may become more narrow)

  • Lump near the anus

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the anal/groin area

Talk to your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. Other conditions that are not cancer (such as hemorrhoids) may cause similar symptoms.

Diagnosis

Sometimes doctors discover anal cancer during a routine physical exam or minor procedure. Some kinds of anal cancer may not cause symptoms until they're at an advanced stage. Your doctor may recommend the following tests to help diagnose anal cancer:

  • Physical exam and medical history – The doctor will check for general signs of health or disease. He or she will ask about your health habits and past illnesses.

  • Digital rectal exam – This is an exam of the anus and rectum. The doctor inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into the anus to feel for lumps or anything else that seems unusual.

  • Endoscopy – For this test, the doctor uses a short lighted tube with an attached lens or video camera attached examine the anus, rectum, and part of the large intestine.

  • Biopsy – This is surgery to remove a tissue sample that will be examined under a microscope to check for cancer. Sometimes the surgeon removes the entire tumor during the biopsy. A biopsy may also be used to detect whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.

If the tests show cancer, the next step is to see whether it has spread within the anus or to other parts of the body. This process is called staging. It is important for determining your treatment options.

Imaging tests may be done as part of the staging process. These may include:

  • Computed tomography (CT ) scan of the pelvis and abdomen

  • X-ray of the chest

  • Ultrasound of the anus or rectum

Tumors of the anal canal are grouped into a set of stages. Stage 0 is the earliest stage, while stage IV is the most advanced. Sometimes anal cancer comes back after treatment. This is called recurrent anal cancer.

Expected Duration

Without treatment, anal cancer will continue to grow.

Prevention

To help reduce your risk of anal cancer:

  • Practice safe sex. The best way to lower your risk of anal cancer is to avoid sexual behaviors that might expose you to HPV and HIV infections.

    • Use condoms to protect against sexually transmitted diseases.

    • Limit your number of sexual partners.

  • HPV vaccine. A new vaccine helps guard against some forms of HPV linked to cervical cancer. Doctors hope that this vaccine could also protect against anal and other cancers.

  • Don't smoke. Avoiding smoking can reduce your risk of developing anal cancer.

Treatment

There are several treatments for anal cancer. Your doctor will recommend specific therapies based on:

  • The stage and location of the anal tumor

  • Whether the patient has HIV

  • Whether the anal cancer has been previously treated

The standard treatments are radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery, often in combination.

  • Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. The radiation can be delivered from a machine outside the body. Or it can come from a radioactive substance placed in or near the cancer cells.

  • Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells or stop them from dividing. Chemotherapy taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle travels through the bloodstream and body. This is called systemic chemotherapy. When placed into the spinal column, organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, chemotherapy affects mainly those areas. This is called regional chemotherapy.

  • Surgery. Sometimes anal cancer is treated with surgery. The type of surgery depends on the size of the tumor and how far it has spread.

    • Local resection: This procedure involves removing the tumor from the anus. Some surrounding healthy tissue is removed as well. This procedure may be used if the cancer is small and has not spread. This surgery can save the muscles that control bowel movements.

    • Abdominoperineal resection: This procedure removes the anus, rectum, and part of the colon. Cancerous lymph nodes may be removed as well. The surgeon sews the end of the intestine to an opening made in the abdomen. This allows waste to empty into a bag (colostomy bag) outside the body.

The most effective therapies now include a both chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Avoiding surgery that causes the loss of the anal sphincter is better in terms of quality of life. Surgery can be avoided and hence quality of life issues in terms of avoiding the loss of the anal sphincter can be achieved.

Patients with anal cancer and HIV disease already have weakened immune systems, so they may receive less intensive chemotherapy and radiation.

When you talk to your doctor about the treatment options, ask him or her about the expected benefits and risks. How will this treatment affect your prognosis? What will your quality of life be during and after treatment?

Follow-up tests during treatment will show how well the therapy is working. You should continue to have regular follow-up tests after your treatment is over to show if your condition has changed.

When To Call a Professional

Call your doctor if you experience any of the symptoms of anal cancer, including:

  • Bleeding from the anus or rectum

  • Pain or itching in the anal area

  • Abnormal discharge from the anus

  • Change in bowel movement size

  • Lump near the anus

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the anal/groin area

Prognosis

Anal cancer is often curable with treatment. The person's outlook depends on the location and size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.

Learn more about Anal Cancer

External resources

National Cancer Institute (NCI)
U.S. National Institutes of Health
NCI Public Inquiries Office
6116 Executive Boulevard
Room 3036A
Bethesda, MD 20892-8322
1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)
TTY: 1-800-332-8615
http://www.cancer.gov/

American Cancer Society (ACS)
P.O. Box 56566
Atlanta, GA 30343
Toll-Free: 1-800-ACS-2345 (1-800-227-2345)
TTY: 1-866-228-4327
http://www.cancer.org/

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
44 Binney St.
Boston, MA 02115
Toll-Free: 1-866-408-DFCI (3324)
http://www.dana-farber.org


Disclaimer: This content should not be considered complete and should not be used in place of a call or visit to a health professional. Use of this content is subject to specific Terms of Use & Medical Disclaimers.

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