Anal cancer is a fairly rare type of cancer that develops in the anus and anal canal. About 8,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with anal cancer each year.
If detected early, anal cancer can be treated successfully. Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths regarding anal cancer. We spoke with gastrointestinal radiation oncologist Emma Holliday, M.D., who debunked three of the most common myths she hears about anal cancer.
1. Myth: Anal cancer is the same as colorectal cancer.
Truth: Anal cancer is different from colorectal cancer. These diseases are defined by the location of the tumor and the type of cancer cell that makes up the tumor. In the case of anal cancer, the tumor is located in the anus and anal canal.
Some patients know they have anal cancer but still tell friends and family they are being treated for colorectal cancer. This is because many people feel uncomfortable talking about the anus.
“We need to do a better job of removing the discomfort and stigma associated with talking about the anus, so doctors can do a better job of explaining to patients exactly what kind of cancer they have,” says Holliday. “This will also help patients feel empowered to share their experience with others if they choose to do so.”
2. Myth: Only promiscuous people or people who have receptive anal intercourse get anal cancer.
Truth: The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the biggest risk factor for anal cancer, and it is very common. Eight out of 10 people in the United States will be infected by this virus in their lifetime. It can be transmitted through any intimate skin-to-skin contact. Most people’s immune system gets rid of the virus before it causes any problems. But for some people, the virus will set off changes in cells that could grow into cancer.
Having anal cancer, or another HPV-related cancer, does not mean you are actively infected with HPV. It also doesn’t mean you caught the virus recently. It usually takes decades between HPV infection and the cell changes that turn into cancer. If you’re eligible, you can get the HPV vaccine to help prevent anal cancer and five other types of cancer.
Having anal sex, especially as the receiving partner, has long been listed as a risk factor for anal cancer. However, it doesn’t mean you have to have had anal sex to get anal cancer.
“I think this misconception makes patients reluctant to speak openly about their diagnosis,” says Holliday. “The anus is just another body part! We should be able to talk about it as if it were the colon, prostate or elbow.”
3. Myth: Treatment for anal cancer means I’ll need a colostomy bag.
If you’re an MD Anderson patient struggling to navigate your anal cancer diagnosis, you can connect with a social work counselor who can provide support and resources to help you cope with your feelings.