Learning you have anal cancer can be difficult to deal with. However, keeping in mind that anal cancer is highly treatable will help you maintain a positive outlook. As you battle this rare type of cancer, you may be wondering what treatment options are available, what scientists know about this form of cancer, and what you could do to achieve the best recovery. To help you get a few quick answers to common questions regarding anal cancer, here are a few things you should know.
What is Anal Cancer?
Anal cancer is an extremely rare type of cancer affecting the anal canal. It is very different from colorectal cancer in its causes, treatment, prognosis, and risk factors. The anal canal is the opening at the end point of the digestive tract where stool passes after a bowel movement. The anal canal’s inner lining called the mucosa is where the cancer is most likely to develop, but the cancer can affect any other part of the anus. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of anal cancer in the United States. Other varieties of anal cancer are basal cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, melanoma, and gastrointestinal stromal tumors.
What are the Statistics on Anal Cancer?
According to ACS, there were 8,080 new cases of anal cancer in 2016. Most of these new cases were women (5,160) and death occurred in a total of 1080 of the cases. Depending on the cancer’s stage and available treatment options, the five-year survival rate for anal cancer is 80% according to the National Cancer Institute. The cancer is rare in people younger than 35 years of age and is most commonly found in those who are in their early 60s. The risk of being diagnosed with anal cancer is 1 in 500 according to ACS. Furthermore, this risk is slightly higher in woman than in men. Other population groups known to be more likely to develop anal cancer are HIV-positive people and men who have sex with men (MSM).
Causes of Anal Cancer
Anal cancer is most commonly cause by the human papilloma virus (HPV) which is a sexually transmitted infection affecting the outer layers of the skin and mucous membranes. The virus is extremely common in the general population with 14 million new people getting infected every year. While there are over 150 different strains of HPV, only a couple of them can cause cancer and these are usually those affecting the genital area. If your immune system is compromised due to an infection such as HIV, your chances of getting infected with dangerous strains of HPV as well as developing anal cancer drastically increases. Luckily, there are vaccines available that can prevent infection with dangerous HPV strains.
Treatment for Anal Cancer
Previously, doctors treated non-invasive forms of anal cancer with abdominoperineal resection which is complete removal of the rectum. The five-year survival rate with this treatment was 40 – 70% according to an article published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology. However, in 1974 doctors started successfully treating anal cancer with a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy which is even now the gold standard in treating anal cancer and which has an estimated survival rate of 72 – 89%. Clinical trials with photodynamic therapy, vaccines, immunotherapy, and targeted therapies are currently showing promising results in the treatment of anal cancer. Besides radiotherapy and chemotherapy, there may be a need for surgical removal of tumorous growths but that won’t affect your ability to pass stool.
Once you’ve undergone successful treatment for anal cancer, you will need to have frequent follow-up appointments with your doctor which will include questions about any problems you might be having as well as imaging tests. These appointments may be as frequent as every 3 months for the first 2 years post-treatment. It is extremely important that you have regular checkups as there may be a chance of the cancer recurring. If you were a smoker, it may be time to stop smoking now as tobacco use is also associated with a higher risk of developing anal cancer. If you have had colostomy, you may find it harder to adjust to life again and start changing your usual activities as a result. Talk to your physician about any problems you might be having as a result of colostomy and they may recommend therapy to help you cope.
Battling any form of cancer can be challenging physically, emotionally, and psychologically. If you suffer from anal cancer, your chances of survival and leading a normal life are much greater than with other forms of cancer affecting the gastrointestinal tract. Furthermore, today’s treatment options are highly effective and cause much less side effects than previous cancer treatments which means you will be able to lead an active and normal life once the cancer is treated.