Understanding Anal Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis And Treatment
Anal cancer constitutes 1-2% of gastrointestinal cancers (colon, stomach, liver, pancreas, and oesophagus), but this unusual growth or tumor is no less dangerous as it can be life-threatening if left ignored untreated. It causes 600 people die in the United States with 4,000 new cases being diagnosed for anal cancer each year.
Even though anal cancer constitutes 1-2% of gastrointestinal cancers, it causes 600 people die in the United States with 4,000 new cases being diagnosed for anal cancer each year.
When people talk about gastrointestinal cancers, they will first relate the cancers with malignancies found in the colon, liver, stomach, oesophagus and pancreas but they never think of anal cancer as part of a gastrointestinal cancer. Even though anal cancer appears rare to many, it is no less dangerous as it can be life-threatening if left ignored untreated.
Human papilloma virus (HPV) is commonly linked as a risk factor which can increase one’s risk of getting anal cancer. This virus is a culprit that causes warts around and/or inside the anus and on the cervix in females, which is also a primary cause of cervical cancer.
What is Anal Cancer?
What is anal cancer actually? Anal cancer, in fact, is an unusual tumor that arises from the mucosa or the skin of the anal canal.
When there are cells inside or surrounding the anal opening starts to multiply uncontrollable it marks the occurrence of anal cancer. These cancerous cells can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body via lymphatic channels or blood vessels and they may also invade the surrounding healthy tissues (or local invasion) where they may grow and implant uncontrollably and tremendously. See, how scary anal cancer is.
What are the Symptoms of Anal Cancer?
The following symptoms may not be necessarily linked to the occurrence of anal cancer however; these symptoms should be administered and diagnosed by a registered doctor to confirm the existence of anal cancer. These include:
- Abnormal changes in bowel movement (which can either be less or more frequent than usual)
- Changes in bowel habits including thinning/narrowing of the feces/stool, diarrhea, constipation and increased straining during a bowel movement
- Recurrent or persistent itching around the anal area
- Bleeding during bowel movements, or bleeding from the anus or rectum
- The presence of a mass, bump or lump in the anal area or at the anal opening
- Pain within the anus or its surrounding area
- Discharge (either pus or mucous) from the anus
- Swollen lymph nodes (glands) are observed in the anal area (sometimes at the groin)
- Bleeding or itching from the anus
Are You At Risk of Anal Cancer?
If you are or have characteristic(s) stated below, you are more at risk than others. These include:
- Had multiple sexual partners
- Age 50 and above
- Pelvic radiation (those who had had a pelvic radiation therapy for bladder, prostate, rectal or cervical cancer)
- Anal sex (those who engage in anal sex with a potential risk)
- Chronic local inflammation (especially those with open wounds or long-standing anal fistulas)
- An immune-suppressive condition as in a case of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
- People with weaken immune system due to medications taken, and infection
- A smoker (harmful chemical substances found in a cigarette can cause a variety type of cancers including anal cancer)
- Taking drugs that can suppress immune system (such as long-term use of corticosteroids, or taking medications right after an organ transplant)
- Infection of Human papillomavirus, or HPV
What Can You Do If You Have Anal Cancer Symptoms?
You should see a doctor without hesitate as earlier detection makes a successful treatment. You might feel embarrassed having anal cancer; however, this is not a reason for you to delay to see the doctor as anal cancer is no joke and can just be life-threatening. Hence, if you are experiencing the symptoms of anal cancer, I would strongly encourage you to see the doctor immediately!
At the same time, you can reduce the risk by adopting a healthy lifestyle. You should employ safe sex by constantly get a health screening or a regular check-up for high risk individual, and stop smoking.
You should ask your doctor regarding the vaccinations that can help protect you from the HPV strain (HPV-16) that is responsible for the presence of anal cancer.
How is Anal Cancer Diagnosed?
To detect the presence of anal cancer, a detailed physical test as well as medical history will be carried out as the first diagnostic examinations. A digital rectal examination (DRE) is done by inserting a gloved finger into the rectum to detect any abnormalities (such as growths, tumors, lumps, mass) inside the anus.
During a procedure of anoscopy, your doctor will position a lighted, short tube into your rectum to check for any abnormalities.
If necessary, an ultrasound may be performed by inserting an ultrasound probe into the rectum. The probe will bounce off the internal issue to produce the sound waves, and the echoes produced will make up an image (or sonogram). By studying the sonogram, your doctor can detect the existence of abnormal growths.
The biopsy is often performed during the anoscopy procedure with the aim to detect the presence of anal cancer. This has been regarded as the most definitive examination for the diagnosis of anal cancer, whereby a small sample of the abnormal tissue is removed before viewing it under a microscope. The biopsy is very helpful to confirm either the absence or presence of the anal cancer, which assists the doctor to make a better detection of anal cancer.
Note: The size, type, location of the tumor and whether the cancerous cells have spread to other parts of the body will determine the type of treatment given.
How is the Anal Cancer Treated?
Here are three main treatments, namely surgery, radiotherapy and chemotheraphy which are performed to treat anal cancer. Often and in most cases, a doctor will recommend the combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
If the anal cancer is still small or it is detected at its earlier stage, surgery is a good option to ponder upon. During the surgery procedure, cancerous tissues as well as some healthy tissues surrounding the anal cancer will be removed. You may require radiotherapy or chemotherapy just after the surgery procedure.
Usually, when the cancer is small in size, surgery can be performed with little damage or without major damage to the anal sphincter. In contrary, if the cancerous cells have spread to other parts of the gastrointestinal tract, an abdomino-perineal resection (APR) will be suggested. The APR is performed by removing the rectum, anus and part of the large intestine. This procedure is later accompanied by a colostomy, in which the end of the colon is attached to the opening in the abdomen. Meanwhile, the waste is accumulated in a colostomy bag placed outside the body.
In general, there are two types of radiotherapy which can be either external or internal. External radiotherapy is performed by administering high-dose X-rays from outside the body, while in a case of internal radiotherapy, wires or small seeds containing radioactive material are inserted into the cancerous tissue. (Note: High-dose X-rays is used to kill cancerous cells)
Chemotherapy is normally administered either orally like pills or intravenously.
Combination of Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy
The combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy is often performed prior to surgery, especially when surgical removal may have damaged the anal sphincter. The combination of these two may help reduce the size of the cancerous cells so that surgery procedure can be performed with less extensive.
As like other cancers, early detection of anal cancer ensures a better survival rate. That means the outcome of the anal cancer is much better if it is diagnosed at its early stage. Normally, most tumors can be treatment effectively with the combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. If you experience any of the symptoms stated herein, please check with your doctor at once!
If you are just undergoing the treatment(s) for anal cancer, you should always follow-up with your doctor so that he or she can better monitor your existing health condition and additional methods or screening examinations may also be introduced. In addition, a follow-up assessment may help treat any recurrence of anal cancer successfully if it is treatment during the onset of the cancer. It is very important for you to report any problems, abnormalities or symptoms to your doctor immediately so that a prompt treatment can be given.
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