Rare Anal Cancer in National Spotlight

A recent TV special and other media coverage of actress Farrah Fawcett's battle with anal cancer have placed the rare disease in the national spotlight.

Many cases of anal cancer are linked to certain types of the STD human papillomavirus, the cause of most cases of cervical cancer. Anal cancer is also associated with unprotected anal intercourse, especially with a person who has genital warts, another HPV-linked condition. However, most people with HPV clear the infection and do not go on to develop cancer.

Dr. Petr Hausner, a University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center oncologist who specializes in gastrointestinal and thoracic cancers, said there are five things people should know about anal cancer:

  • Anal cancer is rare. There were an estimated 5,000 new cases of the disease diagnosed in 2008, compared to 106,100 cases of colon cancer, data from the National Cancer Institute show.

  • The disease is 10 times more common in HIV patients, because of the suppression of the immune system.

  • The vaccine Gardasil protects against two HPV strains that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and two strains responsible for 90 percent of genital warts. The same types of HPV that cause cervical cancer can cause anal cancer in women and men, thus HPV vaccination may also be protective against anal cancer. [Editor's note: The Food and Drug Administration has not approved the use of Gardasil in males.]

  • Early detection is key: A rectal exam and histology can identify anal cancer, which is treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. Symptoms of the disease include bleeding and pain with bowel movements and the feeling of a foreign body in the anus.

  • Scientists continue to study more effective treatment options for the disease. The University of Maryland Medical Center is currently testing a way to deliver radiation that spares healthy tissue.