Anal Cancer

What is anal cancer?

Anal cancer is basically a form of cancer that affects the anus. It occurs when cancer cells form into benign and malignant tumors in the anal tissues. The anus, as we all know, is an opening at the terminal of the intestines where stool exits the body. Anal cancer is not so common. In fact, it is a very rare form of cancer. However, when it occurs, it may spread to other regions of the body. Studies have shown that some noncancerous forms of anal cancer may turn cancerous with time. In the event that you experience any of the symptoms below, kindly consult your physician and discuss your concerns.

What are the types of anal cancer?

Anal cancer exists in various forms. Each form of cancer is defined by the kind of tumor that develops. A tumor is defined as a growth that develops abnormally in the human body. Tumors are of two kinds – benign and malignant. Benign tumors have the potential to spread to other parts of the body over time if they are not immediately and properly treated. Examples of tumors include:

  • Benign tumors: These tumors are basically noncancerous. Those that exist in the anus exist in the form of skin tags, polyps, genital warts (condylomas) and granular cell tumors.
  • Precancerous conditions: These are basically benign tumors that may get malignant with time. It is common in anal squamous intraepithelial neoplasia (ASIL) and anal intraepithelial neoplasia.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: This is very common in the United States. A study by the American Cancer Society has shown that 9 out of 10 percent of cases anal cancer cases are of squamous cell carcinoma. The main cause of this is the presence of abnormal squamous cells (that line a greater portion of the anal canal).
  • Bowen’s disease: This condition is also referred to as squamous cell carcinoma in situ. It features the presence of abnormal cells on the surface of anal tissues that have not yet invaded deeper tissues.
  • Basal cell carcinoma: This is a type of skin cancer that affects surfaces of the skin that have been exposed to the sun. This makes it a very rare form of cancer.
  • Adenocarcinoma: This is formed from the glands that surround the anus.

Anal cancer
Photo Credit: Health Jade

What causes anal cancer?

The major cause of anal cancer is the development of abnormal cells in the human body. These cells have the ability to grow beyond proportions and accumulate, giving rise to tumors. Cancer cells that have developed can metastasize. This means that they have the ability to spread to other parts of the body, interfering with the body’s physiology in the process.

It is believed that anal cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). This virus is transmitted through sexual intercourse. It occurs commonly in many cancer cases. In other cases, anal cancer may arise from the spread of other cancers in the body. When these cancers cross into the anal canal, then anal cancer arises.

Symptoms of anal cancer

Symptoms of anal cancer can be compared to those of irritable bowel syndrome, hemorrhoids, and many diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. These include:

  • Thin stools
  • An alteration in bowel habits
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Pressure, pain or formation of a lump close to the anus
  • Itching or anal discharges

If you have no idea of what the cause of these symptoms may be, please visit your physician for a physical examination and possible evaluation. Tests will be conducted and diagnosis carried out to known which conditions these symptoms belong.

The risk factors for anal cancer

Studies have shown that just a mere 0.2 percent of US citizens are at risk of developing anal cancer at some point in their life. This disease may occur in any person, but some people have a higher risk of developing it, compared to others. Risk factors for this disease include:

HPV infection: HPV is known as Human Papillomavirus. It is transmitted from an infected person to an uninfected one through sexual intercourse. HPV manifests in most cases of anal cancer. Initially, it was the major cause of cervical cancer prior to the introduction of routine pap smears.

HIV: The Human Immune Virus is known to compromise the immune system. It has the potential to weaken the immune system, thus making the body prone to infections. This places the patients at risk of anal cancer.

Sexual activity: Having many sexual partners and engaging in anal sex also places one at extreme risk of anal cancer. Failure to wear condoms and other barrier protections, also increases one’s risk of having an anal cancer due to the high risk of getting an HPV.

Smoking: Smokers have a very high risk of getting the disease even if the quit the habit.

A weakened immune system: When your immune system is weakened, you become prone to many infections and diseases. Hence, your body becomes defenseless against anal cancer. It occurs commonly in HIV patients and people who are fond of immuno-suppressant’s, or people who have gotten an organ transplant recently.

Old age: A study by the Mayo Clinic has shown that anal cancer mostly affects people, above the age of 50.

Diagnosis of anal cancer

Rectal bleeding is a common occurrence in anal cancer. People who experience itching, bleeding or anal pain often visit the physician before cancer progresses past the first stage. In some cases, cancer may be diagnosed during routine procedures or exams.

Some cases of anal carcinoma can be detected by digital rectal exams. These are a component of a prostate exam for men. Common pelvic exams that may be carried out for both genders include insertion of the finger by a physician into the anus. The aim is to feel for growths or lumps.

Tests for anal cancer can also be done with anal pap smears. This is similar to the traditional Pap smear. Here, the physician makes use of a cotton swab to remove cells from the lining of the anus. These cells are then taken to the lab and analyzed for abnormalities. A biopsy may also be done on a set of tissues or cells to test for cancer if an abnormality is detected.

Treatment of anal cancer

Anal cancer doesn’t have a cure. However, it is possible for sufferers to live normal and healthy lives. There are a number of treatment options that may be employed (based on your age and the stage of cancer).  These treatment options may be offered alone or in combination with other forms of treatment.

Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is a process used to destroy and prevent cancer cells from growing. Chemotherapy can be administered orally or injected into the body. Analgesics may be used occasionally to control symptoms.

Surgery: A tumor located in the anus may be removed with a local resection surgery. Some healthy tissue are normally removed in the process. Surgery is used in people whose cancer occurs in the lower aspect of the anus and has not yet progressed to the nearby structures. Surgery is best done for cancers that are still at an early stage, and for small tumors.

A more invasive surgery used is the Abdominoperineal (AP) resection. This surgery is mainly done in those who do not respond well to other conventional treatments, or whose cancer has progressed to the late stage. In this surgery, an incision is made in the abdomen. The aim of this is to remove the rectum, anus, or some regions of the sigmoid colon. Because this surgery removes the entire lower portion of the gastrointestinal tract, the surgeons create an ostomy, which links the gastrointestinal tract to the skin. Patients who receive an ostomy will have to collect their stool in an ostomy bag.

Alternative therapy

Many forms of cancer can be treated with radiation therapies; this includes anal cancer. Cancer cells may be killed by X-rays, though they may also kill the surrounding healthy tissue. This is a noninvasive treatment and is usually combined with other forms of cancer treatment.

The prognosis for anal cancer

It is possible for many people to live long, healthy lives after diagnosis. The key to sustained health is early diagnosis. A study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has shown that the overall five-year survival rate for anal cancer patients is 66.9 percent. This is based on data gathered between 2007 and 2013. Also, people experiencing localized anal cancer have a survival rate counting up to 81.3 percent.

Preventing anal cancer

There is no one way to prevent anal cancer. However, the risk of getting it may be reduced by adopting the following methods:

  • Engage in safe sex: This can be done by staying faithful to one partner. You may also use protective barriers such as condoms. It is also best to avoid receptive anal sex, while getting tested regularly for sexually transmitted infections.
  • Do not smoke: Also, avoid secondhand smoke as best as you can.
  • Vaccination is an option: Males and females between the age of 9 and 26 have the option of getting vaccinated with the HPV Vaccination. The vaccine is usually in a 3-dose series. If you have been exposed to other factors that may increase your risk of having a cancer, (for instance age, and family history), ensure you discuss with your physician.