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Anal cancer

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Cancer occurs when cells in our body multiply out of control, producing lots of abnormal cells. These abnormal cells don't function like normal cells should and can invade tissues or organs and can sometimes spread to other parts of the body.

Anal cancer is cancer that is in the anus, which is the last few centimeters of the bowel and connects the bowel to the outside of the body (the last area your stool passes through when you go for a poop). It is not a common cancer; however, human papillomavirus (HPV) infection increases your risk of developing anal cancer.

HPV is a virus passed on through sexual intercourse. Most people will be infected with HPV infection in their lifetime and the majority will not develop anal cancer. Both HPV infection and anal cancer are more common in people who have anal sex with a lot of different partners, those who smoke, those with a lowered immune system, or those who have had cervical, vulval, or vaginal cancer.

The most common symptoms of anal cancer are bleeding, pain, itching, discharge and fecal incontinence (losing the ability to control when you poop). There are many more common causes of bleeding, pain and itching symptoms that are not anal cancer, so please don’t be worried if you have symptoms.

We should be clear that anal cancer is rare. More subtle signs of cancer can be unexplained tiredness or loss of weight, night sweats or pain in your bones.

Cancer stages and treating cancer

There are 4 different stages that cancers are usually defined by, depending on the size of the mass, whether it has spread from where it originally started, and if so, how far it has spread. These are used to guide what treatment would be best. Stage 1 is when the cancer is small and has not spread anywhere. Stage 2 is when the cancer is larger but hasn't spread. At Stage 3, the cancer is larger and has spread to areas close by. Stage 4 is when the cancer has spread to other body parts and is known as metastatic cancer.

There are many ways of treating cancer, and what is chosen will depend on the area it is in, the cancer stage, and the patient's choice and wishes. The options range from surgery (where all or part of the cancer is removed via a surgeon cutting it out), chemotherapy (which is strong medication aimed to kill cancer cells and stop them from multiplying), and radiotherapy (which uses radiation targeted at the cancer cells in order to kill them). Treatment could be one or a combination of these, and the aim may be to cure the cancer or to improve quality of life by shrinking the cancer to improve symptoms.

When should I see my doctor?

You should see your doctor if you have new symptoms around the anus or unexplained general symptoms of tiredness or significant unexplained weight loss. You should book an appointment to see your doctor immediately if you notice blood in your stool, discharge or pain from your anus, severe pain, or develop fecal incontinence.

What will my doctor do?

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and how long you have been experiencing them, your medical history and your family's medical history. With your permission, they will examine your abdomen and your anus. They may need to put their gloved finger into your anus to feel for any lumps. They may also do blood tests and refer you for further scans or tests.

Am I fit for work?

The ability to work will depend on your symptoms: your doctor will help to decide whether you are fit for work, or if there are any modifications that would benefit you.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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