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Farrah Fawcett's Anal Cancer: Fighting the Stigma

July 2, 2009

Because she went public with her battle against anal cancer, doctors are hopeful that Farrah Fawcett's legacy will be an increased awareness of the illness and an end to the stigma that surrounds it. The actress and 1970s sex symbol died of the disease on June 25.

While the exact cause of anal cancer is unknown, the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that most cases appear to be linked to infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). Estimates of the proportion of anal cancer cases caused by the virus range from 45 to 90 percent. Certain HPV strains also cause most cervical cancer cases.

Although HPV is the most common STD in the United States, Fawcett's anal cancer diagnosis "does not mean she was promiscuous," said Dr. Jay Brooks, chair of the department of hematology and oncology at Ochsner Clinic Foundation and Hospital in Baton Rouge, La. "It simply means that she, at some point in her life, was probably exposed to [HPV]."

According to a 2007 CDC study, one in four females ages 14 to 59 is infected with HPV. The fact only a tiny fraction of them will develop anal cancer suggests that other risk factors -- including smoking, genetic predisposition to cancer, or being over 50 -- likely play a part.

ACS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Otis Brawley said, "This was not necessarily the result of [an STD], and if it is, so what? We need to not stigmatize this disease and the people who have it."

"For some people, this stigma is a critical factor in determining how quickly they respond to the symptoms or signs of disease," said Dr. Richard Wender, former ACS president.

Experts say that Fawcett's openness about her struggle may encourage others to seek medical attention sooner. Though ACS says 5,290 new cases will be diagnosed in the United States this year, treatments are very effective and most patients can be cured. ACS estimates that anal cancer will kill 450 women and 260 men in 2009.

Back to other news for July 2009

Adapted from:
ABC News
06.27.2009; Dan Childs, Radha Chitale

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This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.
See Also
General Information About Anal Cancer
More on Anal Cancer and HIV/AIDS