The short passage where stool passes during a bowel movement is referred to as the anus or the anal canal. Anal cancer is often caused from abnormalities in the cells around the anal opening or in the anal canal which is just inside the anal opening. Tumors in this area, whether benign or malignant, are a sign of anal cancer. Over time some non-cancerous forms of anal cancer can develop into cancerous ones. Anal cancer is uncommon and although it's rare, it may spread to other parts of the body.
Causes of Anal Cancer
Anal cancer is caused by the accumulation of abnormal cells which can metastasize or spread throughout the body and infect tissues nearby. The presence of the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease, is thought to be a contributor to anal cancer. Anal cancer may also be related to other cancers that spread through the anal canal. Other factors, like smoking, weakened immune system, advanced age, chronic inflammation, risky sex and radiation therapies, can increase your change of getting anal cancer.
Symptoms of Anal Cancer
At times individuals present no anal cancer symptoms. Bleeding is commonly the first sign of this disease and is usually minor. Most individuals assume the bleeding is caused by hemorrhoids, a benign and common cause of rectal bleeding. Symptoms of anal cancer that should cause concern include the following:
- Rectal bleeding
- Recurring and persistent anal pain
- Recurring or persistent rectal itching
- A mass (lump) at the anal opening
- Abnormal anus discharge
- Pain or a feeling of fullness or pressure in the anal area
- Changes in bowel movements, such as a change in the frequency or straining during a bowel movement as well as the narrowing of stool
- Abnormal discharge from the anus
- Swelling of lymph nodes in the groin or anal areas
Note: Although these anal cancer symptoms are usually linked to non-cancerous conditions such as anal fissures, hemorrhoids or anal warts, it is necessary to report them to your physician so the cause can be determined and treatment can be provided as seen appropriate.
How to Make the Diagnosis
If you have one or more anal cancer symptoms, you should talk to your doctor. With an abnormal mass in the anal region, you should go through some tests to make the appropriate diagnosis. The following are some of the main tests:
- Sigmoidoscopy: Insert a thin and flexible tube that has light and a small camera into your bottom to have a check.
- Proctoscopy: Exam the inside of the rectum with a hollow tube that has light on the end.
- Biopsy: Remove a small tissue from your anus when doing either of the above 2 exams and analyze it in the lab.
Treatment Options for Anal Cancer
Since we have known the anal cancer symptoms and got diagnosed, the next thing is to seek treatment. In fact, what kind of treatment option fits you best depends on your cancer stage, your preference and your overall health conditions. The main treatment for anal cancer may include:
1. Surgical Treatment
It means to remove the cancer. If diagnosed early or the tumor is very small, a simple local excision can be done without the need for further treatment. It causes minimal damage to the sphincter muscles in the anus, which are necessary for controlling bowel movements.
Major surgery may be performed in cases where the cancer is extensive. This may require the removal of the anus, rectum and certain muscles at the area. In this case, a permanent colostomy may be needed. That means the colon or large bowel are brought out to the skin on the abdominal wall and a bag is attached to collect fecal matter.
2. Radiation Therapy
With this treatment high dose of x-rays are used to kill the cancer cells. Anal cancer responds well to it as it is very sensitive to radiation. In most cases, this therapy is applied to the actual cancer and the surrounding areas to kill any possible cancer cells that may have spread to the lymph nodes in the surrounding region. Side effects like pain around or in the anus, skin redness and anal canal shrinking or hardening may happen.
Chemotherapy means using medications to fight anal cancer. For the treatment of anal cancer, the medications are usually given intravenously or taken as pills to kill the cancer cells. Use of chemotherapy can help in avoiding surgical intervention. Vomiting, nausea and hair loss may happen.
4. Combination Therapy
This combines radiation and chemotherapy to treat and kill the cancer cells. It is now considered the usual and standard treatment for most types of anal cancers. Individuals may have more side effects associated with this treatment; however, it has the best long-term survival rate when used to treat anal cancer.