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The anus is about 1-1/2 inches long and connects the rectum (lower part of the large intestine) to the outside of the body. It allows solid waste (also called stool or feces) to pass from the body. The sphincter is two muscles that open and close the anus to let waste pass. The anus is lined with squamous cells, which also are found in the bladder, cervix, vagina, urethra and other places in the body.
Anal Cancer Types
Several types of tumors may be found in the anus. While some of them are malignant (cancer), others are benign (not cancer) or precancerous (may develop into cancer). The main types of anal cancer are:
Carcinoma in situ is early cancer or precancerous cells. They are only on the surface cells of the anal canal. This also may be called Bowen’s disease.
Squamous cell cancer (carcinoma) forms in the cells that line the anus. This is the most common type of anal cancer.
Adenocarcinomas develop in the glands around the anus.
Skin cancers, including basal cell and melanoma, often are found when they are in advanced stages.
Anal Cancer Risk Factors
Anything that increases your chance of getting anal cancer is a risk factor. These include:
- Age: Squamous cell carcinoma of the anus most often is found in people older than 50
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)
- Having more than 10 sexual partners
- Anal intercourse
- Frequent anal redness, swelling and soreness
- Tobacco use
- Immunosuppression, including taking immune-suppressing drugs after an organ transplant
Not everyone with risk factors gets anal cancer. However, if you have risk factors, it’s a good idea to discuss them with your doctor.
Anal Cancer Prevention
Certain lifestyle choices can help prevent anal cancer. One of the most important is to avoid HPV infection. Some ways you can lower your chances of getting HPV include:
- Wait until you are older to have sex and limit your number of sexual partners
- Use condoms during sex
- Avoid sex with people with sexually transmitted diseases (STD) or who have had multiple sexual partners
- Don’t smoke or use other types of tobacco
- Get an HPV vaccine. Gardasil® and Cervarix® help protect against certain types of HPV. But if you have HPV, they do not cure it.
Visit our Prevention site to learn more about preventing anal cancer.
Learn more about anal cancer:
Why choose MD Anderson for anal cancer treatment?
MD Anderson’s Colorectal Center treats more patients with anal cancer than most other cancer centers in the nation. This depth of experience enables us to offer you the most accurate diagnosis methods and the latest anal cancer treatments.
Our high level of experience in minimally invasive and sphincter-sparing surgeries and other innovative techniques can help many people with anal cancer. We offer the most advanced therapies for every type of anal cancer, including in people with HIV and AIDS.
Because we know quality of life is important, we make every effort to preserve the sphincter, without affecting control of bowel movements.
As one of the world’s largest cancer research centers, MD Anderson is leading the investigation into new methods of anal cancer diagnosis and treatment. You benefit from the most advanced research and a range of clinical trials of new agents.
And, at MD Anderson you’re surrounded by the strength of one of the nation’s largest and most experienced comprehensive cancer centers. We have all the support and wellness services needed to treat the whole person – not just the disease.
Accept your diagnosis. Reach deep into your soul to make peace with it. Look past your daily reality and imagine a future without cancer.
I’m really blessed that I found out about my anal cancer diagnosis early on. That’s a big part of the reason why I’m living without any evidence of disease today.
A friend of mine who’d been diagnosed with late-stage rectal cancer told me he experienced bleeding for months before he finally went to a doctor. So when I started exhibiting the same symptom in October 2015, I remembered his cautionary tale and immediately scheduled an appointment with a gastroenterologist. That led to the discovery of my tumor.
Even though I lived in Florida, I came to MD Anderson because all of my research -- and even my doctors – pointed me in that direction. As soon as I met my radiation oncologist Dr. Cullen Taniguchi, I felt really safe. He has an incredible way of explaining things. There’s lots of hugging whenever my daughter and I go see him.
This has certainly been an interesting journey. Here’s my advice for coping with anal cancer treatment.
Learn to laugh through awkwardness
If you get anal cancer, you better have a sense of humor. If you can’t laugh, then you better learn how before treatment starts.
Radiation therapy for anal cancer is … awkward. Not only are you usually sitting in an uncomfortable position, but female patients also use a vaginal dilator to push away delicate tissue and protect their cervix from radiation. The method, which is unique to MD Anderson, is actually a great idea because it reduces scarring and prevents complications with future Pap tests. But to get past the reality of the moment, I made light of the situation. I asked the radiation therapists to play Elvis songs for me and whenever something embarrassing happened, I’d quip, “Houston, we have a problem!”
And the side effects were horrific -- though Dr. Taniguchi says my reaction to treatment was worse than any patient he’s ever had. I developed nausea and diverticulosis, or inflammation of my digestive track. I also suffered from severe diarrhea. I couldn’t go anywhere without several changes of clothes and baby wipes. My daughter and I joked our way through my many accidents because we knew that laughing through my misery kept me in a fighting spirit. Thankfully, MD Anderson’s pelvic wall therapy eventually helped me strengthen my sphincter and regain control of my bowel movements.
Ask many questions and bring someone with you
A lot of people hide from cancer and don’t really want to talk about it. But learning more about your disease and knowing what to expect during treatment is crucial to your overall health and safety.
Whenever my daughter Stacy and I met with my care team, we brought a list of questions. Stacy jotted down notes during our appointments, and we referred back to them regularly.
I also quickly learned that it doesn’t matter how strong you are, you need an advocate with you to listen. When you’re diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease, you get easily overwhelmed, and you’re just not going to catch everything your doctor says. Having that second set of ears can help you avoid unnecessary complications.
Make peace with your disease
Many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around my anal cancer diagnosis. When I tell people I have anal cancer, they often think I misspoke and meant colon or rectal cancer. Once I reiterate that I have anal cancer, I hear, “Oh, I didn’t know you could get cancer there,” or they think my cancer stemmed from promiscuity. But I still openly talk about it because it’s up to us anal cancer survivors to move others past that stigma. No one minds saying, “I have breast cancer,” so we have to talk about it like it is breast cancer.
So, accept your diagnosis. Reach deep into your soul to make peace with it. Look past your daily reality and imagine a future without cancer. Soon enough, you’ll reach the light at the end of the tunnel.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot
Almost all cases of anal cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, for which a safe and effective vaccine currently exists. MD Anderson’s HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot® aims to improve outcomes for anal cancer patients through prevention initiatives and new treatments.Learn more