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Anal Cancer: Learn the Signs, Symptoms, and Treatments Available

Posted by Anthony Starpoli on Jan 6, 2020 9:29:46 AM
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Are you concerned about possible anal cancer? Do you know what to watch for and when to call your doctor?

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimated that 8,300 patients would receive a new anal cancer diagnosis in 2019. That represents .05% of all new cancer cases. The report goes on to estimate that 1,280 people will die due to anal cancer.

On a brighter note, this NCI study showed a 68.5% 5-year survival rate for anal cancer patients. Early treatment often results in better long-term outcomes. If you think you may have cancer signs or symptoms, talk to your doctor immediately.

Continue reading to learn about the signs, symptoms, and treatment for anal cancer.

What Is Anal Cancer?

Cancer describes a process in which the body’s cells start growing out of control. This can occur an almost any cell in the body. 

The anus describes the opening of the lower end of the intestines. This is the place where undigested food exits the body.

A ring-shaped sphincter muscle at the anus holds stool from leaving the body. This muscle gives you bowel continence or the ability to control when you have a bowel movement.

The inside of the anal canal has a lining called the mucosa. Most anal cancers start growing from these mucosal cells.

Glands with tubes leading from the glands are located under the mucosa. These glands make the mucus which serves as a lubricant for the tissues. Adenocarcinoma is a type of cancer that starts in the anal glands.

Risk Factors

There are several risk factors associated with anal cancer. These include the following.


Most people diagnosed with anal cancer fall between the ages of 50 and 80.

Anal Fistula

An anal fistula describes the development of a tunnel between the anal canal and the outer part of the anus. This may increase the risk of developing anal cancer.

Cigarette Smoking

Medical experts have warned that smoking tobacco harms the body. Chemicals from the smoke move into the bloodstream and travel throughout the body. This means that all organs and tissues become affected.

Tobacco smokers have an 8 times higher risk of developing cancer than nonsmokers. One study found that current smokers were at increased risk for rectal cancer compared to those who never smoked. 

Ongoing Anal Irritation

Persistent anal redness, swelling, or soreness needs evaluation by a doctor. This can represent a sign of anal cancer.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)

A startling 91% of anal cancers result from HPV. Transmission of HPV, a skin virus, occurs as the result of sexual contact.

HPV may present as a low-risk or high-risk virus strain. High-risk strains of HPV can cause 6 different cancers including anal cancer.

Depressed Immune System

Diseases or conditions that compromise the immune system increases the risk of illness. When the body encounters a harmful organism, it may not be able to effectively fight it. Thus, these individuals have an increased risk of anal cancer.

Multiple Sex Partners

Those who have many different sex partners are at higher risk of contracting HPV and HIV. HPV and immune system disorders, such as HIV, increase cancer risk. Anal cancer risk is also higher in those who have anal sex.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of anal cancer may not always be obvious. Having a routine rectal exam increases the chance of early detection. Those with increased risk factors should be diligent about having screening exams.

Warning signs of anal cancer may include the following.

Rectal bleeding

Bright red bleeding with bowel movements, often means the blood came from near the anus. This may result from hemorrhoids, anal fissures, or even cancer.

Anal itching

Itching can signal several problems. This may include skin irritation, yeast infection, or other less concerning scenarios. If the itching persists, see your doctor to rule out serious causes including cancer.


Rectal or anal pain may result from constipation, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, or fissures. More serious causes include anal fistulas and cancer.

Feeling of fullness

A feeling of fullness in the rectum or anal area may signal an abnormal growth such as cancer.

Narrowed stools or change in bowel habits

If a tumor is present in the anal area, this can obstruct stool as it tries to pass from the body. The result may include difficulty having a bowel movement and a narrowing of the stool.

Abnormal discharge

Any unusual anal discharge should be reported to your doctor. This may take the form of pus, mucus, or blood.

Several disorders can cause these types of discharge. These disorders often require a physician’s intervention.

Enlarged lymph nodes

Lymph nodes remove potentially harmful substances from the blood. If a lymph node becomes swollen and tender it often signals infection or disease. Lymph nodes found in the anal or groin area may indicate cancer. 

Mass or Lump

Anytime you find a new mass or lump, you should talk to your healthcare provider. They can determine if the abnormality is benign or cancerous.

Treatment Options

Anal cancer treatment options depend on the stage of cancer. The stage describes how far the cancer has spread in the body. There are three standard types of treatment.

  • Surgery is done to remove the tumor and create a new route for the excretion of stool if needed
  • Radiation therapy strives to kill cancer cells and prevent further growth and spread
  • Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop the growth and spread of the cancer cells

Many new treatment methodologies are undergoing clinical trials. If you wish to consider participating in a clinical trial, talk with your doctor. Some of the study treatments include:

  • Radiosensitizers are drugs that increase the tumor cell's sensitivity to radiation therapy
  • Immunotherapy focuses on increasing the body’s immune system’s ability to fight cancer

Every treatment plan is individualized to meet the patient’s unique circumstances.

Are You Concerned About Possible Anal Cancer?

Cancer of any type is a scary thought. If you think you might have anal cancer don’t avoid the doctor to try and avoid the diagnosis. You may even find relief when you learn that you don’t have cancer.

Anthony A. Starpoli, MD has completed three board certifications. These include Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Dr. Starpoli’s practice focuses on using endoscopic procedures to treat reflux disease and obesity.

Our caring staff’s goal is to provide quality patient care.

Contact our office today to ask questions and make an appointment.

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