December 12, 2001
Dr. Goldstone is a surgeon who specializes in anal and rectal disorders. December's Community Forum was an informal, well-attended discussion on rectal health. Rectal health is a topic often considered taboo by conservative medical society, particularly amongst surgeons. The field is expanding quickly. Because it is known that human papilloma virus (HPV) is one of the most prevalent sexually transmitted infections, Dr. Goldstone focused much of his discussion on HPV, and the practical screening methods used to prevent the disease from becoming cancerous.
The truth is that you cannot really discuss the topic of rectal health without discussing a common sexually transmitted infection called HPV.
To date, there are over sixty types of HPV that have been identified, some more common than others. Certain strains of HPV are associated with warts on the skin, particularly on or around the anus, inside the rectum, penis, labia, or vagina. Warts appear when a person's immune system responds to the virus in the skin cells and causes inflammation in that area. Though HPV is probably best know for its association with genital warts, it is possible to carry HPV and never have genital warts. Some strains of papillomavirus, which can reside in the area between the vagina and cervix, or the anus and rectum, can cause inflammation and changes in the cervical or anal tissue to varying degrees. This is called dysplasia. High-grade dysplasia is strongly associated with an increased risk of cervical and anal cancer, especially for men and women living with HIV/AIDS.
Close to 50% of sexually active men and women have HPV. The number is higher among men who have sex with men, and for both women and men living with HIV. In women, HPV infection is more common for those who become sexually active at an early age, and for those with multiple sexual partners. It is estimated that 85% of women living with HIV and close to 100% of gay and bisexual men with HIV have HPV, though many don't know it. HPV infection is one of the most common reasons for abnormal results on Pap smears.
You don't have to have semen present to catch the virus. Skin to skin contact can be more than enough. HPV can be present in the cells lining the rectum even for people who haven't had lots of anal sex. Dr. Goldstone explained that through sexual activity, with fingers, penises, or sex toys, and possibly through other ways, HPV can migrate from a place like the vagina to the rectum, or from the thighs to the rectum. Simply rubbing yourself against an area where virus is present, like the shaft of someone's penis, or the outer labia, can sometimes be enough.
A Rectal Exam is when a doctor inserts one finger inside the anus, into the rectum, and feels around for abnormal growths. Warts, and other obvious problems, can sometimes be detected this way, but the rectal exam is unable to detect subtle changes that can be precursors to bigger problems. Because rectal exams only spot fairly obvious or advanced problems, it's important to ask for a Pap smear, which is more sensitive, and a better predictor of whether you may need further observation or treatment.
A Pap smear is a simple procedure, most commonly used by gynecologists to screen for cervical cancer. Dr. Goldstone explained that the Pap smear can also be used anally in men and women to screen for changes and abnormal cells in the rectum, associated with HPV infection. Pap smears usually involve thin dacron swabs or a nylon brush inserted through the vagina to collect cervical cells. The cells are then sent to a lab, where a pathologist analyzes it for any changes, or abnormal activity.
To perform an anal Pap smear, any trained physician can insert a dacron swab inside the anus to collect a sample of the cells. Because anal paps must be done without the use of any lubricant, they can be uncomfortable. Once cells are collected, they are sent to a cytologist, who will determine whether or not those cells are abnormal. If there is a finding of abnormal, further tests can be done to determine whether the cells are reactive, and to what degree.
Results are reported according to the same system (Bethesda) used to analyze most cervical Pap smears. According to this system, the possibilities include:
Regular screening through Pap smears and rectal exams are our best bet for preventing problems, but what if problems are detected?
Dr. Goldstone stressed that treatments for people with abnormal anal paps vary according to the source and the severity of the cellular changes. He suggested that anyone who gets an abnormal Pap smear should have a more sensitive procedure called high resolution anoscopy (HRA). To perform HRA, your doctor inserts a small scope with a light at the end inside your anus to actually look at the cells and see whether there are any warts, precanceorus lesions, or other abnormalities in the tissue. HRA shows a doctor exactly where there may be abnormal tissue and whether surgery, or other methods, are required to effectively treat the lesion. Your doctor may biopsy any lesions (a small pinch) to see if the tissue is high grade or not.
According to Dr. Goldstone, HRA results that indicate a high-grade dysplasia require treatment because, if left untreated, high-grade lesions can progress to anal cancer. In women, some cases of high grade cervical dysplasia are treated by a method known as a cone biopsy, where the surgeon removes the precancerous portion of cervical tissue. In anal dysplasia, physicians can't remove the anus, so they have to directly remove the abnormal tissue through a variety of different methods. Rarely is aggressive surgical removal required to treat these lesions, and Dr. Goldstone emphasized that people should beware of doctors who tell them they require an extensive operation.
When growths or warts are detected, the next step is to treat the spot with an acid, or freeze it, or perform a laser procedure to burn it off. These are common procedures and, if caught early, the precancerous area can be removed before causing further damage. Dr. Goldstone asserts that precancerous areas look different than common warts. If you do have warts, your doctor should be suspicious that you may also have a precancerous area. You should see a doctor and get a HRA to better understand the scope of the problem.
He concluded with the take-home message of the evening that we all have a tremendous amount of control in our medical care. Getting regular check-ups is a must, as is getting Pap smears. If your doctor doesn't already do this with you, insist on getting it done annually. It is the first and most effective line of defense against anal cancer.